WASHINGTON -- There is a segment of society for whom traditional family values are increasingly irrelevant, and for whom spring-break sexual liberationism is increasingly costly: men and women in their 20s.
This is the period of life in which society's most important social commitments take shape -- commitments that produce stability, happiness and children. But the facts of life for twentysomethings are challenging. Puberty -- mainly because of improved health -- comes steadily sooner. Sexual activity kicks off earlier. But the average age at which people marry has grown later; it is now about 26 for females, 28 for males.
This opens a hormone-filled gap -- a decade and more of likely sexual activity before marriage. And for those in that gap, there is little helpful guidance from the broader culture. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, argues that the "courtship narrative" in the past was clear: dating, engagement, marriage, children. This narrative has been disrupted without being replaced, leaving many twentysomethings in a "relational wasteland."
The casual sex promoted in advertising and entertainment often leads, in the real world of fragile hearts and STDs, to emotional and physical wreckage. But it doesn't seem realistic to expect most men and women to delay sex until marriage at 26 or 28. Such virtue is both admirable and possible -- but it can hardly be a general social expectation. So religious institutions, for example, often avoid this thorny topic, content to live with silence, hypocrisy and active singles groups.
In the absence of a courtship narrative, young people have evolved a casual, ad hoc version of their own: cohabitation. From 1960 to 2007, the number of Americans cohabiting increased fourteenfold. For some, it is a test drive for marriage. For others, it is an easier, low-commitment alternative to marriage. About 40 percent of children will now spend some of their childhood in a cohabiting union.
How is this working out? Not very well. Relationships defined by lower levels of commitment are, not unexpectedly, more likely to break up. Three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up by the time they turn 16, compared to about one-third of children born to married parents.