Teenagers, who we could always rely on to break into the booze cabinet, refill the whiskey with water, and have awkward, unprotected sex in their bedrooms while pretending to study for a chemistry test, are no longer up to no good.
A new study published in Child Development finds they are actually putting off some of the most classic teen behaviors and milestones, both good and bad, on the road to adulthood — at least compared to teens of previous decades, The Washington Post reported. Teens are no longer that into getting drunk, getting a driver’s license, actually dating, having sex or working a paid job.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s because teenagers are more responsible, or more lazy, or more boring,’ but they’re missing the larger trend,” lead study author Jean Twenge told the Post of her research.
“The developmental trajectory of adolescence has slowed, with teens growing up more slowly than they used to,” Twenge told Quartz. “In terms of adult activities, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds once did.”
The research, which examined nationally representative data from seven surveys on 8 million 13-to-19-year-olds between 1976 and 2016, found that more half of teens still do all these aforementioned activities, but the numbers in the majority have declined significantly:
Between 1976 and 1979, 86 percent of high school seniors had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015, only 63 percent had, the study found. During the same period, the portion that had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 percent to 55 percent. And the portion that had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016.
Most shockingly, in 1991, 54 percent of teens had tried sex; in 2015, that number had dropped to 41 percent.
And that’s not just coddled middle-class kids from big cities; it’s all teenagers, across race, gender, socioeconomic background, and region. All this raises the question: What kind of teenager isn’t champing at the bit to drive, or earn a little walking-around money, or at least taste a beer? What self-respecting teen, a raging bag of hormones, doesn’t want to have sex as soon as possible? What could possibly be getting in the way of teenagers being teenagers, at least as we’ve defined them for the last several decades?
The kind that doesn’t need to, apparently.
According to Twenge, it’s not because of too much homework — they’re actually doing less than teens in the 1990s. It’s not because they have more extracurriculars either, though Twenge said they do slightly more community service. And though some of this risk aversion is certainly attributable to the fact that we all live our lives more on the internet these days, logging on isn’t entirely to blame—the decline in the pursuit of these milestones showed up before everyone had a smartphone.
Instead, it seems that teens are safe and boring these days because we’ve removed a number of risks from their lives and monitored them with increasing frequency. A number of social changes have conspired so that such milestones are less necessary than they once were. We live longer, have fewer teen pregnancies, and have smaller families, which has led to much more engaged, child-focused parenting that leaves kids less unsupervised than they once were. Helicopter parenting produces stronger bonds between kids and parents, and as a result, exactly the sort of parental engagement that makes teens less likely to rebel.
Twenge says not only are parents more restrictive about what they let kids do, but some state and city laws ban them from being out late without an adult present. Legal drinking ages have shifted to 21 from 18. More cities have public transportation, preventing the need to drive at age 16, at least in urban areas.
Also: Everyone is delaying adulthood now — we can thank Gen X for kicking off the trend of waiting longer to marry and breed. Teens have simply gotten the message that their 20s are meant for dicking around a little, or maybe the opposite: seeking higher education to get better jobs or join the Peace Corps. But they’re definitely meant to be spent avoiding marriage, kids and settling down. So teens no longer feel the pressure to grow up fast, because like all of us, they feel like we have all the time in the world to figure it out.
Twenge says we’re all living “the slow life” now, and the Post spoke to teen psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, who thinks it also has to do with not fucking your life up too early:
Among teenagers now, “there is a feeling you’re getting of, ‘Wow, the world is pretty serious, so why would I rush to immerse myself? . . . Why don’t I stay with my friends and away from anything that has heavy consequences, like pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases?’ ”
While the clear upshot here is that teenagers are more protected, the downside, according to Twenge, not to mention the numerous complaints we hear on the internet, is that these teens are also less independent and ill prepared to deal with the “real world.”
Taken together, this all makes a lot of sense. Teenagers today can watch free porn 24/7 while scrolling through Reddit to read cautionary tales of STDs and teen pregnancy. For all the ways this could make them more eager to experiment, it could also effectively satisfy the need to dabble without any real risk, until they’re older.