Monthly Archives: January 2007

the hookup culture

Those who are responsible for adolescents and college students are worried about the “hookup culture.” Quite a few young people have sex frequently with different partners within the same large social network. Their choice not to repeat sex with the same partner seems deliberate, probably a way to avoid commitment.

I think the hookup culture is new and troubling. It’s an example of treating other people merely as means, not as ends in themselves. Participants must constantly estimate their own desirability as sexual partners based on their success in the hookup market. That seems stressful and likely to cause pathologies, such as eating disorders. Because we have a natural proclivity to become emotionally connected to our sexual partners, people who “hook up” are likely to use drugs or alcohol to suppress those feelings. Finally, these young people are missing an opportunity to practice intimacy. I worry that when they actually try to settle down with a partner and start a household or a family, they won’t be good at it.

No doubt, this phenomenon has several causes. I suspect that one of them is economic. Young people are coming of age at a time of high risk and high opportunity, when they feel that they need lots of “human capital” to compete in the job market. They want as many experiences and awards as they can obtain to list on their resumes. Human entanglements don’t help, and an emotional relationship might hold someone back.

The deepest problem may be that successful students now do everything (studying, volunteering, exercise, and sex) for instrumental reasons: to prepare themselves for the moment when they graduate from their final level of college. I worry that they are going to find young adulthood very disappointing, and they will regret missing the chance to do things for their own sake.

I would guess that quite a few participants in the hookup culture (especially young women) are actually rather discontented with it. But it would take collective action and reflection to change that culture. Adults are poorly placed to take this on, because our questions are likely to be seen as censorious. (Or we may seem to be challenging freedom and sexual equality.) Although we should stand ready to help, the Millennials themselves will have to deal with this problem, much as previous generations changed gender roles and sexual mores.

[PS See the Washington Post’s excerpt from Laura Sessions Stepp’s new book Unhooked, which includes this quote from a young woman who is afraid to fall in love:

Her number-one goal, for as long as she could remember, was to excel in school so that she might someday land a great job that would make her financially independent. In high school, she maintained an A average, played volleyball and rowed crew, edited the digital yearbook and played on a church basketball team that won the state championship. Her pace in college was similarly brisk, and she didn’t see how, even in her senior year, she could afford to invest time, energy and emotion in a loving relationship.

At her 21st birthday party she talked about this with a girlfriend who understood. As the friend said, over the recorded sounds of rapper Jay-Z, “I don’t have time or energy to worry about a ‘we.’ “

This concern for financial independence (not affluence) seems symptomatic of a high-risk/ high-opportunity economy that provides weak social supports.]

benefits of service-learning and student government

(Durham, NC): My colleagues and I argue that civic experiences in adolescence make young people into active, effective, and responsible citizens–participants in politics and civil society. However, most students, parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers are less concerned about civic education than about getting kids successfully through high school and college. Their priorities are understandable. One third of adolescents do not graduate from high school, and those who drop out face very bad prospects. Thus I’m delighted to announce new research showing that two civic experiences–service-learning and student government–substantially increase the odds that students will complete high school and college on time. Presumably, we can enhance adolescents’ motivations and sense of connection to school by giving them opportunities to serve and lead. (These are results from two new CIRCLE working papers by Alberto Dávila and Marie T. Mora.)

lordy, lordy

(en route to Durham, NC). Yesterday, I turned forty. Since I happen to have a sick parent right now, “intimations of mortality” would be an understatement. Last time I noticed, my contemporaries were deciding what advanced degrees to pursue, looking for spouses and partners, and wondering whether our elders were paying any attention to us. Now we worry about our own kids, our parents, and our savings; and we are the elders in some of our institutions. All my Gen-X friends seem to live in grown-ups’ houses and understand grown-ups’ issues like 401(k)s, renovations, and dinner parties. We used to play at adult roles; now we inhabit them. Each day, the world seems exactly like yesterday, but a “heap” of days passes and life is completely different.

efficiency versus “receptivity” in politics

I’m just back from a meeting on how to mobilize young people to vote. Techniques for that purpose are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In the 1990s, you might just mail people flyers reminding them to register. Then organizations began to test various messages with focus groups before they printed their flyers. Now they do true experiments, randomly selecting some addresses to receive one flyer instead of another and keeping track of the response rates. (The most effective messages often perform worst in focus groups.) This is just an example of growing efficiency in public-interest or nonpartisan politics. The end–maximizing the number of voters between the age of 18 and 25–is generally taken for granted.

I should emphasize that my organization, CIRCLE, has funded and organized such experiments and collected the results in a user-friendly document (pdf).

Meanwhile, back in my hotel room, I was reading Romand Coles’ article entitled “Moving Democracy: Industrial Areas Foundation Social Movements and the Political Arts of Listening, Traveling, and Tabling” (Political Theory, 2004). Coles argues that democracy means more than participating and expressing opinions (e.g., by voting). He emphasizes listening or “receptivity.” Listening is a source of power–you can strengthen your networks by being attentive to others. But it is also an ethical stance; it opens the possibility that you might need to change your ends, your interests, and even your identity. Coles goes on to argue that literally listening is not enough. You have to move your body to other people’s environments. “It is very easy, when the other [person] is speaking from a place–or places–you have never inhabited nor experienced them inhabiting, to shed inadvertently all too many of their words, expressions, and gestures, or to fail to absorb their depth, register their weight, and taste them, or to dismiss them altogether.” By “tabling,” Coles refers to the practice of literally moving the discussion table around from venue to venue within a community.

Sitting at the table at Wingsread, looking at data on dollar spent per vote cast, I was constantly struck by the contrast.

a growing class gap and the transition to adulthood

(Milwaukee) Life has changed substantially since 1975 for middle-class young people. Life has changed much less–and in less favorable ways–for working-class kids. The result is a growing class gap that influences the way that people become citizens.

For children of the middle class, the first two and a half decades of life are now devoted to “concerted cultivation” (Annette Lareau’s phrase). People are spending more years in college and graduate school. Their non-school hours are heavily programmed, from nursery school on, with soccer camps, music classes, internships, and travel. The age of marriage and first pregnancy is much delayed, and many 20-somethings are still living at home. Rates of drug and alcohol abuse have fallen. Parents and other institutions are making intensive investments in these young people’s human capital–their capacity to compete in a global marketplace. It makes sense to me that activities such as voting and joining community organizations are simply being delayed, along with home-ownership, fertility, and graduation from the final stage of education.

On several occasions, I have heard marketing experts describe all of today’s young people in these terms. The Millennials are said to be sophisticated, savvy, but also verging on spoiled–unsatisfied with courses and jobs that aren’t highly stimulating and educational. The Millennials are also depicted as tolerant and comfortable with diversity.

There is a large element of class bias in these descriptions. One third of American adolesents do not complete high school, let alone graduate school. Public schools are somewhat more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s, so plenty of working-class rural and urban youth have little direct experience with racial diversity. There are precious few after-school opportunities in poor neighborhoods or chances for poor adolescents to interact constructively with adults. The age of first pregnancy has not been delayed, but rates of incarceration are sharply up.

Given this widening gap in formative experiences, it is not surprising that there is a growing disparity in civic engagement by class. In its 2006 report entitled Broken Engagement, the National Conference on Citizenship found (using data analyzed by CIRCLE) that there had been a steep decline in the proportion of Americans who said that they had “worked on a community project within the last year.” But the bulk of the decline had occurred among people without college degrees. “College graduates dominate everyday American community life; high school dropouts are almost completely missing. Half of the Americans who attend club meetings—and half of those who say they work on community projects—are college graduates today. Only 3 percent of these active citizens are high-school dropouts. Thirty years ago, the situation was very different. In 1975, only about one in five active participants was a college graduate, while more than one in ten was a high school dropout.”