Hookup Culture as a Transitional Norm

Matthew Yglesias argues that hookup culture in college — at least in broad outline, if not misogynistic specifics — makes sense for college kids who are sexually mature but have massive uncertainty about their future lives (where they live, what they will do, etc.).  His commenters make some valid points about the value of relationships even if they aren’t lifelong ones.

I like Matt’s general thesis, which is basically that the age of becoming a settled adult has increased, to the point where many people aren’t really getting to a stable life situation until their late 20’s (before then, they may switch careers, switch cities, go to graduate school, etc.).  Before your life stabilizes, relationships have a huge additional risk factor to them.  So instead, you have casual sex!

I suspect that hook-up culture isn’t the ideal for college, but that it’s an understandable reaction to cultural norms that haven’t caught up to the idea of stability not coming until post-college age.  In my father’s youth, many young people reached stability in their late teens, either dropping out of high school or finishing high school and going directly to work in jobs that offered a career path (if a limited one) and a sufficient wage to have a somewhat materially satisfying life.  As college became more important, the age of stability advanced to the early 20’s, and now it is perhaps advancing to the late 20’s.  Coincidentally, mobility has been increasing, so while a 1950’s youth who dropped out of high school to work at the factory might have changed jobs before reaching a lifetime career, he was more likely to do so in the same town that he grew up in than a 2010’s youth.

When the age of stability was 18-22, it was perhaps reasonable to suggest to young people that they immediately dive into finding a lifelong relationship.  After all, if they waited until they were 25, they might find few options available to them.  It is less reasonable to ask someone whose life won’t be stable until they are 27 to start trying to find more-or-less doomed relationships a decade in advance.

That said, the critics of hook-up culture surely have a point.  What would be a more healthy social dynamic for sexually mature people before the age of stability?  I don’t really know, but it seems there must be a middle ground between “one-night hookups” and “attempts to grow old together before you know what state you’ll live in.”  Probably the boring answer is an increased tacit acceptance that you’re in the relationship for the duration of the school year but not your life.  But you could at least imagine that some kind of loose friends-with-benefits relationship might become more of the norm in college, or a relationship-with-accepted-infidelity situation, or polyamory.

I don’t seriously think that we’ll walk away from at least serial monogamy, but it’s interesting in a science fiction kind of way to speculate.

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