Compared to the teens of decades past, today’s adolescents just aren’t that into dating or sex. New analyses of 40 years of data (1976-2016) show that the percentage of 12th graders who have ever gone on a date has never been lower. A quarter-century of data on teenage sex (1990-2016) indicate that the percentage of students in the 9th through 12th grades who have ever had sex has also reached a low point. The research report, by Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, and Heejung Park of Bryn Mawr College, was just released by the journal Child Development.

As the authors noted:

“Twelfth graders in the early 2010s went out on dates about as often as 10th graders did in the early 1990s. Having sex went from being the majority experience for high school students (54% of 9th-12th graders in 1991) to the minority experience (41% in 2015).”

The decline in these behaviors, and other activities the authors describe as typically associated with adulthood, was not specific to particular demographic groups. It occurred for “boys and girls, Whites and Blacks, lower SES and higher SES adolescents, in all four regions of the United States, and in rural, urban, and suburban locations.”

Percentage of 12th graders who had ever gone on a date

The research on dating among high school seniors was based on more than a half-million 12th graders surveyed between 1976 and 2016. (Eighth and 10th graders were included from 1990 through 2016.) The authors analyzed the data in 5-year intervals.

In the three time periods between 1976 and 1989 (1976-1979; 1980-1984; and 1985-1989), the share of 12th graders who had ever gone on a date was either 86 percent or 87 percent. The percentages for the subsequent years are below. Notice that percentages decrease consistently over time.

% of 12th graders who had ever gone on a date

84%, 1990-1994

81%, 1995-1999

76%, 2000-2004

71%, 2005-2009

63%, 2010-2016

Percent of high-schoolers who had ever had sex: On the decline from 1990 through 2015

The research on the percent of high schoolers who had ever had sex was based on data collected in surveys, starting in 1991. More than 175,000 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders participated.

Between the early 1990s (1990-1994) and the early 2010s (2010-2015), the percent who ever had sex declined for every age group:

9th graders, declined from 38% to 29%

10th graders, declined from 47% to 40%

11th graders, declined from 59% to 52%

12th graders, declined from 68% to 62%

What does it all mean? Twenge and Park’s answer

Dating and sex were only two of the behaviors Twenge and Park analyzed in their study of U.S. adolescents. Others included driving, working for pay, drinking, and going out without their parents. All of the activities declined over time.

The authors believe all the behaviors go together because they are associated with adulthood: children rarely or never engage in those activities, and adults often do. They use their results to make the case for a new and slower life strategy, compared to a faster strategy of the past. Teens can move more slowly toward adulthood, Twenge and Park argue, because, on the average, they are in “resource-rich environments.” For example, parents have fewer children than they did in the past, and so they can invest more in each one. Greater life expectancy is also associated with a slower path toward activities associated with adulthood, as is greater income.

What does it all mean? A bigger picture

The notion of a slow path toward adult activities seems to imply that just about all adolescents will end up engaging in all the activities supposedly associated with adulthood – they will just be slower to get there. It is the way scholars have often thought about young adults – sure, they may be slower than they were in the past to get around to marrying or having kids, but give them time and they’ll get there.

But maybe they won’t. For example, a Pew Research Center report estimated that by the time today’s young adults reach the age of 50, about 25% of them will have been single their entire lives. Think about that – a cohort of 50-year-olds in which 1 out of 4 has never been married!

Americans’ beliefs about what counts as a marker of adulthood have changed, too.  A 2017 Census Bureau report showed that more than half of all American adults in a representative national survey said that getting married was “not important” to becoming an adult. The same number (55%) said that having children was “not important” to becoming an adult. Other experiences, such as completing formal schooling and having full-time employment, mattered more.

Our understanding of sexuality has also changed in ways that I don’t think anyone anticipated decades ago. Perhaps most surprisingly, the concept of asexuality has made its way into our cultural conversations and into the studies of social scientists. It is a real thing, the researchers have concluded: Some people just aren’t interested in sex, and not because there’s something wrong with them.

The bigger story, I think, is that humans have more opportunities than they ever have had before to live the lives that suit them best. Dating, sex, marriage, kids – they aren’t mandatory anymore. People can live full, and fully adult, lives without any of them. My guess is that we have much more to learn about the full range of human interests and desires. As the possibilities for living in different ways expand, humans will prove to be a much more diverse and imaginative lot than we ever realized.

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