I wanted to highlight a fascinating story in the Economist that shows that young people these days are…healthier and less sexually active than past generations.
This trend appears to be consuming the United States and much of Western Europe. As the Economist says:
In America, the proportion of high-school students reporting “binge-drinking”—more than five drinks in a single session—has fallen by a third since the late 1990s. Cigarette smoking among the young has become so uncommon that more teenagers—some 23% of 17- to 18-year-olds—smoke cannabis than tobacco. Over the past ten years pot-smoking has increased, a bit, among these older teens; but even though now legal in some states (see page 35) its prevalence is still far lower than in the 1970s, when Barack Obama was a member of his high-school “choom gang”. Use of other recreational drugs has fallen sharply. Dr Wilson Compton, the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that perhaps the most worrying trend in young Americans’ drug habits is the increasing abuse of attention-focusing pills such as Ritalin by students keen to improve their performance.
Teenage kicks of other sorts also appear to be on the decline. “Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did,” according to a report on young Americans from the Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank. America’s teenage pregnancy rate is half what it was two decades ago (see chart 3). Britain has experienced a lesser decline. Most mainland European countries never saw the high rates of teenage pregnancy that America and Britain saw in the 1980s and 1990s, but they too have fewer expectant youngsters than they did.
Teenagers appear not just to be waiting longer for sex, but also by-and-large to be being careful about what they get up to once they get started. According to data from the European Centre for Disease Monitoring and Control, across the European Union (EU) they are the only age group to be diagnosed with fewer sexually transmitted diseases in recent years.
What is causing this newer generation of healthier habits?
The Economist spends a long time analyzing how it could be that people are better off and then comes to this conclusion:
Yet perhaps the best explanation for this youthful self-control is not the role parents play in young adults’ lives today; it is the way they brought those young adults up. A combination of government initiatives, technology, social pressure and reaction against the follies of the past has improved parenting dramatically.
The amount of time parents devote to child care has increased significantly (see chart 4). Today, working mothers spend almost as much time on child care as stay-at-home mothers did a generation before. Data from the Multinational Time Use Study—a collection of surveys from 20 countries—shows that in 1974, mothers without jobs typically spent just 77 minutes with their young children each day, while employed mothers spent about 25 minutes. By 2000 that had risen to 161 minutes and 74 minutes respectively. According to William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of various studies of the “millennial” generation, children born in the 1970s and 1980s were mostly raised by baby-boomer parents who married young, had children quickly and were often rather blasé about the consequences. The suburbs they moved into—and the inner cities they left derelict and unwanted—were breeding grounds for isolation and disaffection.
And we get this:
“There’s been a huge increase in social pressure to be a good parent,” says Frances Gardner, an academic at the University of Oxford who studies parenting. She points to “Supernanny”, a television programme about parenting, and to the “helicopter parent” phenomenon as evidence of how attitudes towards children have changed.
For much of the 20th century, children were largely ignored and allowed to roam free. If they acted up, they were typically punished with violence. Now, however, parents are expected to be intimately involved in their children’s lives, says Ms Gardner. They supervise homework; attend parents’ evenings; go to prenatal and parenting classes; read blockbusters about child psychology. These improvements are not restricted to parents working as a team: single parenting has improved even more. A British survey shows that in 1994 almost 70% of lone parents did not know where their children were after 9pm—roughly double the rate of nuclear families. By 2005 the rates had almost converged.
So, there is a lot of good news to be seen here. Parents are more involved in their kids’ lives, and this has had good results.