How Millennials Turned Out Much Better Than Their Boomer Parents

July 31, 2017

A new analysis of General Social Survey data confirms what we’ve seen in other research – Millennials are a lot more sexually conservative than their Boomer parents. Earlier studies have shown that:

A new report takes a look at infidelity in the GSS data – by age. For thirty years, overall findings around cheating have been consistent:

  • 75% of Americans believe extramarital sex is always wrong.
  • 3% say it isn’t wrong at all.
  • About 16% of Americans report having had extramarital sex.

First, a word about the GSS – and all social science surveys. Social scientists aren’t able to say precisely how truthful respondents are when answering questions about their personal sex lives. Plus, studies are based on responses, so those who choose not to respond aren’t counted. For that reason, the most reliable conclusions in this data come not from absolutes, e.g. 16% of married people cheat. Rather, the comparison of data from year to year and over time yields the best insights.

Millennials have less extramarital sex.

In the case of infidelity, those findings have been steady. However, when we drill down into the data by age, we find something surprising. Boomers cheat a lot more than Millennials do, and have much more liberal attitudes towards extramarital sex. Those age 55 and over report cheating at a rate of 20%, while only 14% of those under 55 say the same:

As you can see the general trend is downward among those under 55, while Boomers show a sharp increase in extramarital sex over time. This trend is being driven by those in their 50s and 60s:

This trend mirrors the “gray divorce” boom; researchers find that adultery is both a cause and consequence of failing marriages. 

While readers of HUS are unlikely to have their own dating lives directly affected by the bad behavior of their parents’ generation, it’s interesting to note what’s driving this activity. Social scientists believe that Boomers, having come of age during the Sexual Revolution, have carried that experience and those values within them throughout their lives. They are a reflection of the time in which they grew up.

There are other factors to consider as well. People can exit marriages after 20-30 years without experiencing much social stigma. Also, Viagra has made it possible for previously physically dysfunctional men to act on their desires for extramarital sex. In any case, we can see the shift in attitudes about cheating by age:

Those over 60 show the sharpest decline, while Gen X has actually gotten more conservative. Perhaps this reflects the desire on their part to avoid the mistakes of their parents’ generation, including divorce as a result of infidelity. It may also explain part of the trend of today’s youth delaying marriage, which predicts long-term marital success.

What about intramarital sex?

Millennials’ rejection of infidelity is admirable from a character standpoint, as well as being good for marriage. That means that Millennials’ behavior is strengthening society is a tangible way, at least as far as the institution of marriage is concerned. They may delay it, or do less of it, but when they marry, they marry for keeps.

How good are Millennials’ sex lives within marriage? The prevailing narrative in popular culture is that passion can’t last. We picture harried 30-something dads, sexless for weeks on end as they work long hours, do housework and find barely a moment to retreat to their man caves. Nathan Yau at Flowing Data wondered if the “less lust, more companionship” characterization of marriage was true. So he crunched the data from the GSS to look at frequency of sex by age and marital status.

Yau uncovered numerous interesting tidbits, but the grandaddy of his analysis is here:

A quick glance shows that married people have sex a lot more frequently than single people do, across all age ranges. I was curious about that 4% green bubble for singles in their 30s – Yau says that because those percentages are small, the data is “noisy.” Obviously, single people cohabiting or in long-term relationships would be in that number.

Yau found that parenting doesn’t decrease sexual frequency – much. 27% of marrieds without children have sex 2-3/week, compared to 19% of parents. But that’s largely age-related: 33% of parents under 35 have sex that often, as do 24% of parents 35-54.

The Bottom Line

It’s clear that my generation demonstrates much higher sociosexuality overall than today’s young adults. We are more promiscuous, unfaithful and less committed to marital commitment than any generation before or since. We grew up as the divorce rate peaked in 1980 after the Women’s Movement and Sexual Revolution unleashed the evolution of the original “you do you” sexual empowerment experiment. We have transferred that dysfunction to our own belief systems and relationships.

The good news is – your generation rejects it. You mostly avoid casual sex, seek long-term relationships, and approach marriage with great seriousness. You are less impulsive, having benefitted perhaps by observing the malaise of Boomers.

If  you were under the mistaken impression of believing you were an outlier for valuing long-term happiness over short-term gratification, rest assured that your generation accepts more responsibility for relationships than mine ever did. It may take you longer to find “the one,” but you’re much more likely get there (and stay there) in the end.

Do these findings surprise you? Have you bought into the myth of hookup culture’s success? Do you feel encouraged by this? Let’s discuss!