Adapted from The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better and People Feel Worse

When conservatives in the past decade have declared that the key to reducing teen pregnancy is teens having less sex, they were mocked by liberals. That's just old-fogey moralizing, many said. We should accept the ever-rising sexuality activity among teens as inevitable.

This week, the old fogies seem to have pulled out a win. New studies by the federal Centers for Disease Control show that the percentage of American high-school students who have had sexual intercourse declined steadily during the 1990s, and in 2001 fell to the lowest level since 1990. Today, it can be said that the typical American 12th-grade high-school boy or girl has not yet had intercourse. Meanwhile, teen pregnancy is at "the lowest rate ever recorded" in the United States, according to a government study.

Conservatives should certainly take a bow since they helped bring the topic to the foreground in a way that probably helped. But there are plenty of other reasons for the drop in pregnancies among teens. It may be that the movies and music now so relentlessly promote cheap, superficial sex that teens are rebelling against it. If Hollywood and MTV are telling teens to have quick and cheap sex, they sense this means they ought to do the reverse! Or maybe a generation of kids saw that sex and the resultant babies brought nothing approaching happiness to the teens of the 1980s and 1990s.

Here is a fourth possibility: that teens are not so different than the rest of us. Virtue generally is on the rise in the United States. Teens may be simply participating in an overall national revival of personal standards.

Setting aside the recent corporate lying scandal as confined to those who make northward of $1 million a year, it can be argued that nearly all trends related to personal virtue today are positive. Commentators may bemoan society's lack of moral standards or that Americans no longer fear their God. Statistics say otherwise.


  • The use of most illegal drugs has been declining for two decades. Alcohol consumption per capita has been declining for a generation, including among the young. Boozing in the United States is down so much that among Western nations, American is close to the bottom for drinking.
  • Cigarette use continues to decline, especially by the all-important barometer of youth use, since smoking habits are often set in the teen years. Just 10 percent of American 10th graders smoke today, believed to be the lowest number for this age group since packaged cigarettes became common in the 1920s.
  • The divorce rate, which had been climbing seemingly inexorably since the 1950s, flattened out in the '90s and at present is in shallow decline. When you attend a wedding, in the United States at least, there is no longer a 50/50 chance you are watching people swear vows that will not last.*

  • *Of course some marriages do not work and of course some women need to escape from abusive husbands, but a significant body of academic research shows that being married usually leads to better physical and psychological health for both spouses. In most cases staying married improves the standard of living in both; and in nearly all cases, parents staying married is good for children.

  • The rate of children born outside marriage, which climbed seemingly inexorably since the 1950s and peaked in 1994 at 32 percent, has also flattened out, and is in shallow decline.
  • According to the Bureau of the Census, the segment of children who lived with both parents rose from 51 percent to 56 percent. The increase held for African American children as well, 39 percent living with both parents at the end of the 1990s, versus 35 percent at the beginning.**
  • Is increased abortion the reason teen births are decline? No, because incidence of teen abortions went down 39 percent from 1995 to 2000, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a birth-control advocacy group. Total abortions in the United States have been declining steadily for most of the last decade, falling in 2000 to the lowest level since the year 1978, though the population rose during the period. Setting aside whether abortion is morally right or wrong, that abortion demand is declining on its own, through people's voluntary choices about birth control, sex and childbearing, is surely another sign of rising personal virtue.

  • Violent crime, the worst failing of virtue, is also in spectacular decline. Rates of murder, rape and assault have been falling steadily for a decade or more. During the 1990s, homicides fell by 75 percent in San Diego, 70 percent in New York City, by big margins in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles and other cities. Domestic violence, robbery and burglary and car theft all declined. Rape declined by 40 percent in the 1990s, as extensive efforts were being made to encourage the reporting of rape. Even considering a few horrifying events such as Columbine, youth violence declined sharply in the 1990s, with the "crime offending rate" for teenagers falling an amazing two-thirds. Gun use by the young, particularly, declined in the 1990s: a big drop in youth-on-youth shootings caused the overall occurrence of adolescent death to decline to the lowest rate ever.
  • This virtue boom has already produced rewards, and will likely produce more. Fewer births to teens is a factor in the crime decline, as boys born to unwed teen mothers are far more likely to commit crimes in later life than boys born to married mothers over the age of 20, a rule that applies to all races. Since having a child before age 20 is closely associated with ending up impoverished, the decline in teen sex will benefit thousands of young women. (Statistics show that in order to avoid becoming poor in the United States, you must do three things: graduate from high school, marry after the age of 20 and marry before having your first child. Only eight percent of those who do these three things become poor as adults, whereas 79 percent of poor adults have failed to do these three things.)

    Not long ago divorce, teen pregnancy, crime and other problems were decried as runaway phenomena that could never be reversed, brought about by an irresponsible anything-goes culture. Now these supposedly unstoppable trends have flip-flopped in positive directions, amidst guarded optimism that American culture is increasingly concerned with higher standards. This proves that advocating virtue is not a waste of time--it can work.

    **A woman can raise a child without a husband, and two committed people can be good parents outside the institution of marriage. But statistics dictate that on average, children born to married parents live longer, advance farther in school, earn more as adults and are less likely to have emotional problems or commit crimes. This marriage-is-good-for-kids formula is just as true for white children and middle-class children as it is for children of minorities and the poor. Kids on average simply do better when raised by two parents; dreamy sixties-era claims to the contrary just have not held up under the scrutiny of sociological studies.

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