02PubPenThis week, Publisher Bill Bowman yields this space to Margaret Dickson, longtime Up & Coming Weekly columnist. Enjoy her eloquent and thought provoking New Year reflections.

A new year always feels fresh.

Gone are the decorations and general holiday clutter. Our homes feel spare and open to new possibilities. We are back into our routines of work and school and doing our darnedest to live up to the resolutions we made with such determination. The new year is a blank slate that opens at midnight, one which will mark another chapter in the journeys of our lives.

We also experience evolutions, changes that come slowly over time, sometimes so subtly we may not recognize them at all. One that struck me only when I read a newspaper article about it is that Christmas in America is becoming more of a holiday than a holy day. The non-partisan Pew Research Center, which polls on many aspects of American life, released findings just before Christmas on how Americans now see the two-millennia old religious observance. It is now more of a secular and cultural holiday than a religious one, with only 57 percent of us professing to believe all four elements of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus.

The study finds that some of us do find more meaning in the religious significance of Christmas while others of us find special meaning in gatherings of family and friends and in being kind to others, and some of us feel both aspects of Christmas observance. Just as Western Europe has become more secular, Pew Research finds so too is the United States.

No American could have missed the increasing concern over the opioid epidemic in our country. Some of us have experienced it personally and painfully through our own addictions or those of people we love. Some of us have lost someone dear.

Now we find that the opioid epidemic strikes women more quickly and more severely than men, creating a gender disparity that leaves women in worse health. The numbers are startling. Opioid overdose rates for men have increased some 265 percent since the epidemic took hold, but for women that number is an eye-popping 400 percent. Some of the disparity may revolve around the reality that women are generally smaller than men and should have lower dosages of prescription drugs and some around the fact that women are prescribed longer regimens. Whatever the reasons, though, the disparities are there. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, health economist Ken Sagynbekov advocates for more extensive health care coverage, including in Medicaid and Medicare, something both North Carolina and the federal government have resisted. Says Sagynbekov, “The long-term consequences of ignoring the gender gap in health should frighten us more than political tempests.”

He is right.

Back to the ever-curious Pew Research Center polling findings. Many an American family jokes about young adult children returning to the nest, and there is truth in those jokes. For the first time in modern American history – more than 130 years – young adults ages 18- 34 are choosing to live with their parents more often than any other living arrangement, including with roommates or significant others and even marriage.

Interestingly, more returnees are sons, not daughters, probably because young men have seen both declining employment rates and incomes. Living at home is a trend that predates the Great Recession, but one that has probably been exacerbated by it. Pew Research says the trend is fueled by young people waiting until age 35 or longer to commit romantically, whether they marry or just decide to combine households, what the U.S. Census Bureau calls “cohabitation.”

Another factor at play is educational attainment. Less-educated young people are more likely to live with parents than their more educated contemporaries, probably because of lower incomes. Young adults with college degrees have done much better economically in the workplace, making it more likely that they are able to establish their own homes. Add to this another Pew Research finding that roughly six in 10 Americans 35 and under are living “unpartnered,” and it is apparent that significant social change is indeed underway. Racially and ethnically, a record percentage of young black and Hispanic people, 36 percent, are living with parents.

As 2018 unfolds its new, fresh and unmarked self in our lives, we may be concentrating on what we can do to make our mark on it. We can also be mindful of outside forces, which shape our lives as much or more than anything we control ourselves.

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