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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

A nation of Terrys

Slacker descendants of the postwar middle class are depleting America's social capital

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

Let's call him Terry. He's your cousin, your uncle, or your brother-in-law. He graduated from high school sometime between 1970 and 1990, may have attended a year of college, worked a few jobs (but none for long), married once or twice, fathered a few kids, in or out of wedlock-and failed to establish a forward motion in life. "Terry just can't seem to get it together," his mother says from time to time. "Terry's a loser," is the judgment of his former friends.

Terry is often a nice guy: friendly and personable, a fixture at family gatherings and occasional sender of Christmas cards. Unless he's living with you, which he might be because he doesn't make enough money to pay the rent, much less buy a home. Drugs or alcohol are part of his problem but not, you suspect, the cause of it. And what is that cause? It's hard to say. For whatever reason, Terry just can't function as a fully responsible adult.

Teresa also can't seem to get it together, but she must assume some responsibility for her fatherless children. She wants the best for her kids, of course, but seems unable to provide or even encourage those things, and her children are caught in the same downward spiral. Her only outside involvement is with a loose network of relatives, friends, and non-permanent associations: no commitment to a cause or church, no long-range plans because it's all she can do to live day to day.

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Rootless men and single moms have always existed in American society, but not in such numbers. From my own limited observation, it seems there was a break around 1972 between young adults who married, started careers, and raised families, and their younger siblings who couldn't stay married, couldn't hold a job, and couldn't get ahead. Some Terrys and Teresas eventually establish themselves enough to try to be a positive influence on their grandchildren; some never do.

Social scientist Charles Murray calls this the New Lower Class: pleasant, inoffensive folks who consume more than they produce. One divorced or never-married guy living with his parents is not a problem, but millions of them are. One single mom raising her children on the fly can be absorbed by society, but millions of them can't. They may break no laws (unless for substance abuse) and break no windows, but by not contributing, they are destroying.

Contributing what? Murray calls it "social capital"-the spirit of volunteerism and association that has always set America apart. Tocqueville remarked on it back in the 1830s, attributing America's greatness to her "domestic virtue": family, church, and community. America is the nation where citizens routinely band together in countless small ways to benefit casual acquaintances and even strangers-by cleaning up a park, adopting a highway, volunteering at a homeless shelter.

Social capital is an intangible asset built on connections. By and large, unmarried people do not generate social capital. That leaves more slack for the government to pick up, which encourages more individuals to stand down, thus perpetuating more Terrys-whole families of them, if multiple partners and thoughtless procreation amounts to a "family."

What's most disturbing is that this New Lower Class descended from the mid-20th­century middle class, the postwar generation that participated in the greatest surge of prosperity the world has ever known. They stayed married, went to church, joined the PTA-their children and grandchildren do not, or not consistently. Breaking family bonds leads to the severing of countless minor connections, the kind that hold society together and help people regulate themselves.

There's plenty of blame to go around: the members of the "greatest generation" who didn't discipline their kids, an enabling welfare state, the willful abdication of personal responsibility, and failing to call sin what it is. The only solution is strong families and strong churches. Families, do not disparage the church; churches, do not neglect the family. God has ordained both for society's benefit. With fervent prayer and renewed commitment, society can be restored.
Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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