When 17-year-old Quattro Musser hangs out with friends, they don’t drink beer or cruise around in cars with their dates. Rather, they stick to G-rated activities such as rock-climbing or talking about books.
They are in good company, according to a new study showing that teenagers are increasingly delaying activities that had long been seen as rites of passage into adulthood. The study, published Tuesday in the journal Child Development, found that the percentage of adolescents in the U.S. who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date, and who work for pay has plummeted since 1976, with the most precipitous decreases in the past decade.
The declines appeared across race, geographic, and socioeconomic lines, and rural, urban, and suburban areas.
To be sure, more than half of teenagers still engage in these activities, but the majorities have slimmed. 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 who had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 to 55 percent. And the portion who had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016.
Teens have also reported a steady decline in sexual activity in recent decades, as the portion of high school students who have had sex fell from 54 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s because teenagers are more responsible, or more lazy, or more boring,’ but they’re missing the larger trend,” said Jean Twenge, lead author of the study, which drew on seven large time-lag surveys of Americans. Rather, she said, children may be less interested in activities such as dating, driving or getting jobs because they no longer need to.
According to an evolutionary psychology theory that a person’s “life strategy” slows or accelerates depending on his or her surroundings. That means exposure to a “harsh and unpredictable” environment leads to faster development, while a more resource-rich and secure one has the opposite effect.
A century ago, when life expectancy was lower and college education less prevalent, “the goal back then was survival, not violin lessons by 5,” Twenge said.
In that model, a teen might be thinking more seriously about marriage, and driving a car and working to establish “mate value based on procurement of resources,” the study said.
But the U.S. is shifting, a change seen across the socioeconomic spectrum, Twenge said. “Even in families whose parents didn’t have a college education … families are smaller, and the idea that children need to be carefully nurtured has really sunk in.”