How will we rejuvenate marriage and the family? An Irish market researcher says that it is already happening, as people gradually realise that big government, third-wave feminism and selfish individualism are unsustainable.

Gerard O’Neill, Chairman of Amárach Researchamárach means tomorrow in Gaelic, told a conference in Belfast earlier this month that the “new and often hostile forces arrayed against marriage as an institution and preferred choice in the early 21st century” were destined to slowly exhaust themselves.

First, however, the bad news.

O’Neill began by examining  marriage rates, past and present. Fifty years ago, in 1962, there were 7 marriages per 1,000 people in Northern Ireland; in the Republic there were just over 5 marriages per 1,000. Fast forward 50 years and the marriage rate in the North has fallen from 7 to 4.5 marriages per 1,000, and in the Republic from 5.2 to 4.6 per 1,000. He put these rates in a European context, pointing out that the rate in Cyprus was 7 per 1,000 and  Slovenia’s was the lowest at 3.

Back in 1962 fewer than 3 percent of births were outside of marriage in Ireland. Today the proportion is nearly 40 percent and well over 50 percent in the cities. The current European rate varies from a low 7 percent in Greece to a high 64 percent in Iceland.

Then the good news. These trends are unsustainable. “If something can’t go on forever,” he said, “it won’t”.

Western societies is going to face a number of peaks. We are all familiar with “peak oil” – when output peaks while reserves are consumed faster than they are replaced. Today, O’Neill believes, we are witnessing peak government, peak feminism, and peak individualism.

We have already hit “peak government”. The global financial crisis has flowed from the finance and banking sectors on to governments through sovereign debt. A growing number of nations will have to cut spending savagely. This will have an huge impact upon marriage.

“In many parts of the world the Government has become the ‘daddy state’ – replacing fathers and husbands with expanding social welfare provisions.  But the ‘daddy state’ is about to become the ‘miser state’ – and so the dependency culture that was allowed to grow up around the expansion of profligate state spending will have to rapidly go into reverse.”

Next is peak feminism. First-wave feminism won the vote. Second-wave feminism won equality in the workplace. Now third-wave feminism wants, O’Neill says, the subordination of men.

“Of course, many feminists will deny this. They will point to the gender wage gap or other such controversies. But they then ignore gender gaps that are to men’s detriment: higher rates of unemployment, of emigration, imprisonment, sucide, as well as greater victimhood from violent crime. Men are also failed by our educational system (a growing majority of third level/university students throughout Ireland and the developed world are women). Men still die five years younger than women on average despite all the advances of science in the past fifty years.”

Even if some women are limited by a glass ceiling, their brothers, fathers, sons and husbands (or partners) are trapped in a glass cellar.

“But… if it can’t go on, it won’t. The thing is, most of the ‘success’ of gender feminism in the late 20th century has been the result of substituting men with the state: as employer, provider and defender. Ergo, Peak Government means Peak Feminism. Again, it won’t be pretty after the peak has past.”

Finally, on a more philosophical level, there is peak individualism. Over the last 50 years, the people have accepted unquestioningly the dogma of “self-actualisation” preached by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His “hierarchy of needs” put that security and sustenance at the bottom and “self-actualisation” on the top.

“All very hippy, all very self-centred, but a perfect charter for the radical liberal agenda of autonomy and individualism that has swept the world over the past 50 years. And also very wrong: we now know that the deepest psychological drivers of people relate to bonding, parenting and belonging.”

But as peak government and peak feminism decline, so will individualism because of “our ageing populations, the emergence of new types of communities and networks, and the resurgence of an older, deeper wisdom about what makes life meaningful and worthwhile. And it isn’t self-actualisation.”

Action plan

To channel these opportunities for positive change, three things must happen.

First, men must find their purpose again. Unemployment among young men throughout the world is the biggest threat to the future of marriage, bar none, he said.

“It is also the biggest barrier in the way of our future well-being as a society. No civilised society can survive without the engagement, commitment and support of its young men. And right now we are failing an entire generation of young men throughout the Western world. Nor will men be civilised without the pre-requisites that historically have given them purpose and identity, namely: a job, a wife and a child – preferably in that order!”

Secondly, women, must “woman up”.

“We are all familiar with the call for men to ‘man up’ when the circumstances call for it. We’re less familiar with the call for women to ‘woman up’. Just as civilisation has no future without its men, so the family has no future without the engagement, commitment and support of its young women. Women have been profoundly misled by radical feminism, by the myth that they can be happy and fulfilled by a career that provides financial independence, making men and marriage optional. It doesn’t. The bottom line is that the family will only be saved by young women realising that marriage and motherhood are more important than a career.”

Thirdly, people of faith, especially Christians, must go on the offensive.

“Peak Government, Peak Feminism, and Peak Individualism will unleash new forces in the world, not all of them benign. But it will also open up new spaces for organisations like the Catholic Church and other faiths (including Muslims) to use their wisdom, authority and resources to provide guidance and inspiration through the turbulent times ahead.”

He concluded by declaring that marriage and parenthood are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago and that marriage will be even more important to our wellbeing in the “post-peak” future we are now entering.

Michael Kirke is editor of MercatorNet’s Conjugality blog. Mr O’Neill’s speech was delivered at the Golden Jubilee Conference of Accord, a Catholic organisation that aims to promote a deeper understanding of Christian marriage.

Michael Kirke was born in Ireland. In 1966 he graduated from University College Dublin (History and Politics). In that year he began working on the sub-editorial desk of The Evening...