Bye-Bye Love

February 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Arthur Brooks, in a Valentine’s Day op-ed in the Washington Post, brings us the sad news that the flame of romantic love is sputtering. “Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.”

Really? To convince us, Brooks offers three bits of evidence.

1. While 69% of pet owners planned to give their pets a gift, only 61% of pet owners planned to give a gift to a spouse.

I’d put this in the “I am not making this up” category. Brooks really does offer it as evidence. The numbers are from VetIQ, a pet health company not widely known as a source of national survey data. Maybe he threw it in just to lighten the mood. Whatever. Brooks offers no information on planned Valentine gift-giving among the petless.

2. Surveys of kids show that the custom of dating is on the wane. Or as Brooks’s son, a college junior, says, “Nobody dates.”

3.  The General Social Survey. Now we’re getting serious.

from 1989 to 2016, the percentage of married people in their 20s fell from 32 percent to 19 percent. And lest you think they are forgoing marriage but not sex, note that the percentage of 20-somethings who had no sex in the past year rose by half over the same period, from 12 percent to 18 percent.

The decline in marriage and the increasing age for getting married may have just a wee bit to do with factors other than romantic feelings — things like the economy, the labor market, and the cost of having children. As for not having sex, if more 20-somethings are unmarried, more of them will be without sex partners. In any age category, the marrieds have more sex than do the unmarrieds.

So if we accept Brooks’s idea that no-sex is a good indicator of the lack of romantic love, we should look at just the unmarried. Here is the GSS data on 20-somethings.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

If you look only at the first and last years (the GSS did not ask this question before 1989), you see what Brooks pointed out.  No-sex  goes from 17% to 23%. But there’s no clear overall upward trend (the dotted trend-line in fact goes downward). Yes, the 2016 numbers were high. But that may be a statistical anomaly like the unusually low rates in 2012. It would help if we had 2018 data, but we don’t, not yet.

But let’s pretend that romantic love, as measured by no-sex, really is decreasing. The question is why?

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today.”

The father in “Bye-Bye Birdie” (1960) may not have known what’s wrong with these kids, but Brooks does. “The greatest culprit for the United States’ increasingly romanceless culture is fear.” Ya got trouble, my friends, right here in River City, with a capital F, and that stands for fear.

And how do kids come by this fear? From protective parents (known not long ago as “helicopter” parents.)

Children are discouraged from venturing alone out of the house by their parents, who also adjudicate their disputes with other children. The protection culture often deepens in college, with the proliferation of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to allow avoidance of hurtful ideas. As a result, many young adults enter their 20s with little experience in conflict and rejection — with the social equivalent of a peanut allergy. It is no surprise that love and dating would seem scary and foreign to so many.

If Brooks is right, we would expect to find that Americans brought up in less protective times and places are more daringly romantic. In addition, the upward trend towards less sex should be stronger among the children of protective, college-educated parents (Annette Lareau’s “concerned cultivators”) than among those whose less protective parents never got a college degree.

For the period 1996 - 2008, we see the difference Brooks would predict. The children of (presumably) protective parents are more likely to have been without a sexual encounter in the previous year. If Brooks is right about coddled kids, and assuming that protective parenting was still on the rise among educated parents in the 1990s, that difference should have grown even wider in the current decade. But it didn’t. Instead, it disappeared.

Protective parenting is relatively new, says Brooks, so we should also see a generational difference — a stronger trend towards no-sex among younger people.

(For both age groups, I excluded those who were married. For the older group 
I included the divorced and separated along with the never married.)

The older group, the ones raised before helicopter parenting, are more likely to have gone without sex. That’s the opposite of what Brooks would expect. Of course, it may have more to do with life circumstances and the ease of finding partners than with how protective their parents were. In any case, the trends in the two lines are not vastly different. 

Maybe Arthur Brooks is right, and America’s youth are the vanguard leading in the wrong (in his view) direction, away from romantic love. At least for the moment, I don’t find the evidence convincing. As listeners to the Annex Sociology Podcast might know, I tend to be skeptical about claims of social decline, especially those centered on young people. The two myths that I spoke about with host Joe Cohen on that podcast (here and here) are the decline of authoritarianism and the loss community. To this, we now add the fading rose of romantic love.

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