It’s not difficult to peg precisely when the American sitcom moved away from following the lives of mature adults to idealizing the lives of overgrown adolescents. But there’s no question that two generations of Americans have now grown up in a world where virtually everyone worth watching on television is a twentysomething to thirtysomething without a home, a spouse, children, or even a solid job in many cases.
That transition began with the modern shift of the early 1970s, when CBS led the way in moving from traditional situation comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies to more urban-centered comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family. Both of those shows focused on non-traditional situations. The Mary Tyler Moore Show focused on a single woman living with a roommate while working at a news station. All in the Family focused on a father and mother living with their grown daughter and son-in-law. The twist: the father was a bigoted moron, and the mother was a good-hearted idiot, while the liberal son-in-law, who didn’t have the ability to provide for his wife, was the smartest one of the bunch.
Fast forward forty years. There are still family-oriented sitcoms, although they all feature non-traditional families being equated to traditional families, or completely dysfunctional traditional families (Modern Family, Glee, Two and a Half Men, Family Guy). There are work-oriented sitcoms, although those sitcoms largely revolve around people who dislike their jobs (The Office, Parks and Recreation). But all of those sitcoms revolve around people who are in their forties.
What of people in their thirties? They are treated like people in their twenties used to be. The Big Bang Theory features late-twenties scientists rooming together, or with their mother, struggling with love; it took five seasons for one of the main characters to get married. Nobody on the show has had children. New Girl features three men living with a woman in an apartment. All are approaching or above age thirty. All but one have dead-end jobs. None are married, none have children.
That used to be the exception rather than the rule. Now, thanks in part to the plethora of television characters who live glorious and fun single lives without responsibility, that’s become the societal ideal. The median age of marriage was stagnant from 1950 to 1970; it was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women in 1950, and 23.2 and 20.8, respectively, in 1970. As of 2010, the median age of first marriage is now 28.2 among men and 26.1 among women.
As for childbearing the numbers are similarly stunning. The average age for first childbirth for women in the United States is 25, lower than the average age for marriage (no wonder there are such massively rising rates of unwed motherhood across socioeconomic lines). The median age in 1950 was 22.8. That may seem like a minor rise, but as Jonathan Last has pointed out in his fantastic What to Expect When Nobody’s Expecting, a rising age of first birth and a lower age of last birth means fewer children.
Not all of this is attributable to television – not even close. But television, as both a reflective and a transformative medium, has changed how people think about marriage and family. Marriage on television is largely relegated to negativity. Married couples are generally miserable (Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons), while single people lead glamorous lives full of sexy partners and interesting jobs (Sex and the City, Friends). Nobody has to live with the consequences of spending adulthood as in a suspended state of adolescence.
America, however, will. When Americans stop getting married, stop having children, stop aspiring for a home and a homestead, the predictable effect is an unmoored civilization, both morally and economically. We cannot all live in our father-in-law’s house. Someone has to pay the bills. And someone has to pick up the slack for a population that increasingly blows off responsibility for the fleeting fun of college-style living.