The Economics Of Hookup Culture


Millennials constantly hear about how they’ve killed traditional American family values with their rampant hookup culture. We're told that millennials are gallivanting off on sexcapades, decrying marriage as a useless, tyrannical institution, and forgoing conventional relationships for intangibles like “fulfillment,” “passion,” or “feeling like it.” But such accusations are unfair. It’s easy to pin a shift in modern relationships on the younger generation — after all, we are implicitly involved in social change. Instead of passing judgment on millennials, we should be looking at the many external factors responsible for this shift. 

According to a recent Pew Research report, last year, 36% of young adults in the United States aged 18 to 31 were living in their parents’ homes, the highest share in at least 40 years. That's some 21.6 million millennials living with mom and dad, up three million from the beginning of the recession in 2007. Additionally, in 2012, only 63% of young adults had jobs, down from 70% in 2007. The effective unemployment rate for people aged 18 to 29 is 16.1%, according to Generation Opportunity's June jobs report. And from 2006 to 2011, home ownership rates declined most among those under 35. 

Basically: we got no jobs, we got no money, and we got no place to live (not on our own, anyway).

We grew up with parents who told us we could be anything we wanted, and that we were special. We dreamed of being astronauts and CEOs. We were promised that with education and a strong work ethic, we could succeed at whatever we put our minds to, and have the prosperous life our parents had. And then we graduated from college and entered the work force during the worst economic time possible. The bubble burst.

Economist Robert Gordon argues that the slump was not just the consequence of a multitude of economic sins, but the end of an era. He suggests that the rapid economic growth of the United States in the 50s and 60s (which slowed in the late 70s, and plummeted into a dark abyss in 2008) was a fluke, and won't come back any time soon. “Some things can happen only once,” Gordon ominously told New York Magazine in July. 

Now millennials are stuck in our parents' basements with our parents' debt, trying to make sense of an era for which we weren't prepared. Our personal growth has been stunted by an economic disaster of which we were not the cause. Drastic times call for drastic (or mildly different) measures.

Economic pressures have created social ones, so it stands to reason that millennials will relate to each other, and the world, in new ways. And they have. From 2008 to 2011, the number of unmarried couples grew 11.8%. From 2007 to 2011, the birth rate declined 19.1% among 20- to 24-year-olds and 9.2% among 25- to 29-year-olds. Gone are the days of simply being "single" or "in a relationship." Technology has contributed to the shift, as we're forever connected with both exes and one-night stands through texting, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. But this brave new world of unmarried singles isn't quite as apocalyptic as it's been made out to be.

study published by the University of Portland last week argues that the college campus hookup culture so often written about in trend pieces is, in fact, not really a thing. The study compared national surveys of college students’ sex lives from 1988 to 1996 with those from 2002 to 2010, and the, “results provide no evidence that there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a significant liberalization of attitudes towards sex,” according to lead researcher and sociology professor Martin Monto. 

In early August, a Gallup poll reported that that 56% of 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States are unmarried, but want to get married (just 9% of respondents expressed no interest in marrying). According to Gallup, the high level of interest suggests there is, "little widespread attitudinal aversion to first-time marriage" among the younger generation, and that the overall marriage rate may be dropping because millennials feel more comfortable waiting to marry. (The report failed to add that you have to become comfortable with a lot of things when you're broke.)

Millennials' formerly bright futures took a huge blow, thanks to the recession. Now we bunk with Mom and Dad, take paid internships because we can't get entry-level jobs, and eat a lot of Hot Pockets. We've been forced to look inward, and to recalculate our trajectory. So, yes, we're going to take each other out for a very cheap drink, and not a fancy dinner. We're going to make out at parties in front of our friends because we can't bring someone home to our parents' house. We're going to find "hanging out" and "dating" interchangeable because casual relationships seems more manageable when we can barely support ourselves. We're going to put off marriage and having children because it seems impossible to take care of another human when we don't even know what we want for ourselves. We're gonna focus on "me me me" until we find some stability and balance.

Instead of making throwaway remarks about how millennials are destroying traditional values, people should acknowledge that a tremendous cultural shift is taking place, and that it was set in motion long before millennials got here. The times they are a-changin’, and we're all just trying to make sense of what we don't understand.