Talkin' 'Bout My Generation, 5/6
We liberated people to make more choices about sex. Results are mixed.
[Note: I composed this essay last week. Earlier this week, the big news was the leak of a draft opinion overturning Roe V. Wade. As it happens, this essay talks about sex norms from the 1950s, in which laws against abortion were embedded. So this essay might seem relevant, but that is not my intent.
Please read this post the way it was written, as having no bearing on the abortion issue. For those of you with comments on the abortion issue, I am putting up another post. So comment here on the essay as written, not on the issue of abortion.].
I grew up in a large family where children were viewed as a blessing rather than a curse. There is nothing inherently subjugating or sexist about parenthood and marriage. The modern view that a child is a burden leaves men and women alike in the dark regarding the true happiness that can be found in the tough but fulfilling work of family life.
—Sarah Weaver, Hillsdale College, political philosophy
I don’t know if I’ll form a family. When people (my mom especially) ask if I want to get married or have kids, I say no. Do I mean it? I’m not sure. But I don’t want to be constantly looking ahead to that. My future should be about me. I think I deserve to be a little selfish in that regard: It’s my life, not anyone else’s, and I shouldn’t hinge its value on the presence of a spouse.
—Ariel Thornton, University of California, Irvine, biological sciences
from the Wall Street Journal.
I was born 68 years ago today.
As of 1954, healthy young adults almost all had children. They did not really have a choice. Yes, they knew about birth control. (Catholics weren’t supposed to use birth control if they listened to the Pope, which few did.) But culturally there was a strong presumption that a normal life included a stable marriage with children. Sex before marriage, sex outside of marriage, homosexual sex, and divorce all were considered wrong, although none were unheard of.
People who deviated from the norms were objects of pity (“She’s still single” “Too bad they can’t seem to have children”), scorn (“She had an affair with a married man!” “They got married because she was already pregnant”), or treatment (“He should see psychiatrist about his homosexual tendencies”).
My generation revolted against this culture. The advent of The Pill led us to think in terms of enjoying sex free from the anxiety of a possible pregnancy. We exercised a lot more sexual freedom, especially prior to marriage.
I should point out that our generation did not make a public display of one’s sexual preferences. You indulged your peculiarities in a closet, not a fishbowl.
It was only in this century that sexual preferences became an important identity marker. As the late Swarthmore College professor Bernie Saffran once said to me, “Arnold, when you were in college, students had to declare themselves about where they stood regarding Vietnam. Now, the kids have to declare whether they are gay, straight, or bi.”
Since then, the varieties of sex preferences that people feel compelled to share publicly have increased. For example, you see people putting their preferred pronouns in their email signatures or in their Zoom profiles. I have to ask: what is the point of advertising what type of sex acts you’re comfortable performing, unless you do it professionally? Actually, whenever someone asks me for my pronouns, in order to be agreeable I answer “Democrat.” That’s what those people really are looking for.
Another recent change concerns the treatment of sexual advances. In the 1950s, the man was expected to try to seduce, and the woman was expected to resist. By the 1970s and 1980s, women were supposed to want it, so resistance was less acceptable. More recently, women are told that not only may they choose to resist, they can also accuse a man of sexual assault for trying. As I see it, each of these cultural norms creates difficulties. The 1950s norm punishes a woman for wanting sex. The 1970s and 1980s norm punishes a woman for not wanting sex. The current norm punishes a man for guessing that a woman might want sex.
I actually wish young people could still play the game of man tries, woman resists, as long as they play it with respect. And by respect I mean an attitude, not following a legalistic script for consent. Respect comes from the inside, not in a handout distributed by the Office of Resident Life.
Let’s return to the issue of children. In the 1950s, the default was that you had them unless you had a good reason not to. Now, the default is the other way around.
From my perspective, the deciding factor should be the big increase in life satisfaction that comes from having grandchildren. I recommend getting on the path that leads to grandchildren. Which means thinking in terms of getting married and starting a family while you are still in your twenties.
There certainly are legitimate reasons not to have children. But some of the more popular reasons are ones that I don’t find compelling. These include wanting to explore more sexual experiences before marriage, wanting to establish one’s career before having children, and wanting to have solid finances before having children. I would suggest not letting those concerns stand in the way.
Most people my age who have grandchildren feel like we have won at life. Our grandkids give our lives meaning and hope for the future. Suppose that somehow you could offer a person three choices: receive a Nobel Prize; win an Academy Award; have a grandchild. The catch is that these are mutually exclusive, so if you have one, you cannot have the others. I can’t think of anyone I know who is around my age who would take the Nobel Prize or the Academy Award.
I know that people in their twenties do not make their decisions taking into account how they imagine that they will feel in their seventies, so telling them about the boost to life satisfaction that comes with grandchildren won’t register. To get a lot more young people to choose the path that leads to becoming grandparents, the cultural norms have to nudge them in that direction.
We are well rid of many of the 1950s norms that my generation overthrew. But the norm to get married and start a family could use a revival. I think it would lead to more life satisfaction.
Happy birthday Arnold! On your birthday, I'd just like to thank you for your years of insightful, prolific blogging. I've read almost every one of your posts for the past ~10 years, and I've greatly appreciated learning about macroeconomics (PSST), career strategies (work for a profit), mid-century St. Louis (I went to WashU), fighting against the passions of the Current Thing on the internet (forcing yourself to delay publishing posts), and much more.
Perhaps more on-topic, I'm reminded of something you wrote awhile ago, which has stuck with me (though I can't seem to find the actual quote): Most generations are insufferable because they think they are the first to discover sex. This generation is insufferable because they think they discovered moral philosophy.
Bryan Caplan says,
“Free markets are awesome because they give business incentives to do good stuff that sounds bad.”
In my opinion, traditional norms of marriage and having children are awesome because they give individuals and families incentives to do good stuff that sounds unappealing in the near-term.
Happy Birthday Arnold!