Most of us who witnessed the fire-and-brimstone protester on campus this week are familiar with his vision of America’s youth: spoiled, promiscuous, impulsive, and immoral. This image pervades our media from its glorifying portrayal at the box office (think Project X) to the newspapers and books decrying the “hook-up culture”. Many voters cite this moral decline as an issue of concern, and serious politicians have weighed in; former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum speculated that it may be due to Satan attacking America’s culture and institutions. Whatever the cause, the problem seems to be universally accepted: everyone thinks of today’s youth as having unprecedentedly active drug and sex lives, and not much time for anything else.
Reality is, of course, much less interesting. CDC data shows that rates of teen sex peaked twenty years ago, and have been declining since. The Guttmacher Institute reports that since its peak in 1988, the proportion of 15–17 year olds who had ever had sex declined from 37% to 27% among females, and from 50% to 28% among males. Among 18–19 year olds, that proportion declined from 73% to 63% among females, and 77% to 64% among males over the same period. Between delayed sex and increasing use of contraceptives (further evidence of the unchecked impulses of our depraved youth), the teenage birthrate has fallen among all-ethnic groups and reached its lowest point since we started counting. Don’t let television shows about pregnant teenagers warn you—we’ve never had fewer teen moms than we do right now. And abortion isn’t the explanation; that’s down too (by 59% since its peak in 1988).
The evidence about drug use tells a similar story. The “Monitoring the Future” surveys done by the University of Michigan, which track drug use among teenagers and young adults, show that use of illicit drugs is pretty much flat. Marijuana use is higher than it used to be; meth and cocaine use are down. Moreover, rates of cigarette smoking and binge drinking in 2012 were the lowest ever recorded in the survey’s 37 year history. Daily cigarette smoking among high school seniors has halved, falling from 19% to 10%. If you can believe it, rates of binge drinking in high school and even on college campuses are at record lows.
Oh yeah, and the high school graduation rate stands at its highest point in two decades. Here’s to kids these days—by almost every metric, more responsible than today’s parents ever were. The same conservative politicians decrying the decline of America’s culture and youth should really be rejoicing. America’s a lot lamer than it used to be.