Vaguely interesting (Oct 22)

(1)  “The inflation adjusted weekly income of the typical full-time American worker hit an all-time high in the third quarter of 2016.”

(2)  “[This] year’s 20 executions will be the fewest since 1991, when 14 were recorded.  … Just five states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas – account for [all the] executions this year.”

(3)  “Black Americans are disadvantaged compared to whites—even when they have higher incomes and more education.”

(4)  “But there are not one, but two big trends in liberal economic thinking. … Center-left ideas have tons of very careful academic empirical work behind them, while those wishing to tear up economics and start over are still working mostly with broad analogies.”

(5)  “A survey [of] corporate directors found that just 24 percent of the male respondents believed board diversity improves corporate performance, while an overwhelming 89 percent of female directors believe it does.”

Vaguely interesting (Oct 21)

(1)  “We consistently found that participants selectively chose to learn that bad (good) things happened to bad (good) people (Studies 1 to 7)—that is, they selectively exposed themselves to deserved outcomes.”

(2)  Hispanics don’t seem to be supporting Democrats more strongly in 2016 than in 2012.

(3)  “As whites increasingly sense that their status in society is falling, white racial identity is becoming politicized. Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’ speaks to these anxieties by recalling a past in which white people dominated every aspect of politics and society.”

(4)  “Currently, 45% say the justice system is ‘not tough enough’ — down from 65% in 2003 and even higher majorities before then.”

(5)  “Describing these people as motivated by racial resentment, per journalists’ deep-seated belief that racism is a major character defect, seems cruel and un-empathetic, even if it’s supported by extensive amounts of social scientific research and indeed by the statements of Trump’s supporters themselves.”

The elephant in the pews

Rob Kurzban, Doug Kenrick, and I have a new article that’s now online (though available only to those with university access, at least until it comes out in print), written for The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology and Religion (edited by James Liddle and Todd Shackelford). It’s called “The Elephant in the Pews” and provides a summary of our perspective on religiosity in modern developed societies.

The title relates to the fact that, while there are lots of things that correlate with religiosity in modern developed societies—age, cohort, gender, personality features, disease avoidance, views on cooperative morals, and so on—there are two sets of correlates that are much bigger deals than the others. One involves parent-child resemblance and is almost always acknowledged as being a big deal. In short, more-religious adults are substantially more likely than less-religious adults to have had more-religious parents.

But the other very big deal isn’t often recognized as being a very big deal. It’s the elephant in the pews: reproductive strategy. More-religious and less-religious people in modern developed societies have enormous differences in sociosexuality (i.e., how turned on they are by casual sex) and in moral and political views on sexual and reproductive topics (e.g., views on premarital sex, abortion, pornography, divorce, recreational drugs, and birth control). There are also major religious differences in individuals’ own sexual and reproductive lifestyles (e.g., how many sex partners they’ve had, how many children they have, how long they had sex before having children, whether they have married or divorced or live in a nonmarital cohabitation, how much they drink and use recreational drugs, and so on).

These religious differences in reproductive strategy are on average plainly bigger deals than the other commonly discussed demographic and attitudinal differences. For example, there’s a real gender difference in religiosity in America, but it’s a modest difference and is basically mediated (i.e., swamped, overpowered, eliminated) by much larger differences in sociosexuality. In other words, look at men with different sociosexual lifestyles and attitudes, and they differ greatly on average in religiosity; look at women and it’s the same story. But look at men and women with similar lifestyles and attitudes relating to casual sex, and there aren’t sizable gender differences in religiosity. Or, to take another example, there are real personality differences in religiosity in America (religious folks tend to be more agreeable and conscientious), but, again, these are modest differences and are basically mediated by much larger differences in sociosexuality. Or, to take another example, there is a modest-but-real correlation between religiosity and views on cooperative morals, but this correlation goes away when one controls for the much larger correlate of sexual/reproductive morals.

So reproductive strategy is the elephant in the pews—the thing that often gets ignored as researchers focus on much smaller correlates of religiosity. It’s a simple point, really: Just, you know, look at the effect sizes and mediation patterns. But, as we say in the paper: “while recognizing the elephant in the pews is pretty easy, the harder part is figuring out what it is doing there.”

What’s it doing there?

The real meat of the paper is in our view of the casual links between religiosity and reproductive strategy. To understand where we’re coming from, start with the usual story: The differences you see in adults’ religiosity are mostly the effects of having grown up in more- or less-religious households; these differences in religiosity lead people to have different beliefs about morals, divine rewards and punishments, and so on; and these religious and moral beliefs lead people to live different kinds of lives. So, you know, some people are raised religious; they’re taught about how God thinks promiscuity is bad and wants you to be fruitful and multiply; they end up being religious in the way they were raised and believing the things they were taught; and these beliefs drive their adult behavior, leading them to be less promiscuous and have more kids.

From our perspective, there’s some truth to this story, but also a lot of truth to practically the reverse story: Different people (with different individual features, different ecologies, etc.) end up being differentially attracted to different sexual and reproductive lifestyles; and these lifestyle differences then have a big effect on the morals they choose to endorse, on the religious doctrines they choose to espouse, on whether they seek out or avoid religious groups, and so on. So, you know, some people are raised religious but then nonetheless end up being drawn to sociosexually unrestricted lifestyles (hooking up, partying, shacking up, etc.); as a result of their lifestyle preferences, they stop endorsing moral views that say that hooking up is bad, they stop espousing religious doctrines that claim divine authority for the condemnation of hooking up, and they stop going to church.

Some of our evidence for this view comes from the kinds of statistical mediation patterns I mentioned above. For example, the correlation between religiosity and gender is largely eliminated when you control for sociosexual attitudes and lifestyles. This suggests—though doesn’t necessarily prove—a simple and plausible account: On average, women have more restricted sociosexual orientations than men do, and they end up going to church more than men do because sociosexual orientation is itself a powerful causal factor in determining whether people end up being more or less religious.

Other evidence is in a way more straightforward. I took a direct look at these issues using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. The basic summary is this. Lots of kids are raised in churchgoing households. But the large majority of these kids end up abandoning it by their mid-20s. In fact, around 75% of those whose parents went to church every week when the kids were teenagers were themselves not attending weekly in their mid-20s. And what predicts which raised-religious kids stuck with it or not? The big predictors were sociosexual ones. Look at how much they party, whether they’re sexually active outside of marriage, whether they’re in a nonmarital cohabitation. This suggests—though, again, doesn’t necessarily prove—a simple and plausible account: Lots of kids are raised religious, but as they enter their teens and 20s many (despite their religious upbringings) become attracted to sociosexually unrestricted lifestyles, and those who do largely end up abandoning regular church attendance because they’re adjusting their religiosity to fit their Sex-and-the-City lifestyles.

Put it all together, and this helps solve one of the great mysteries of religiosity in modern developed societies. People with more kids go to church more, which means that each generation of young people is on average raised in more-religious households than the society as a whole. And yet (as I blogged about recently), in the past several decades, each generation actually has ended up being less religious than the generations that came before. If people are just soaking up their parents’ religiosity, how could that be true? The answer is that, while there is clearly an effect of parental religiosity on offspring religiosity, that’s not the end of the story. Another big piece is that adult lifestyles have a casual effect on adult religiosity, and there are other things going on in the modern developed world that are pushing lots of people to prefer unrestricted, lower-fertility lifestyles, and these lifestyle preferences then make religious involvement less appealing.

It’s complicated

We’re not taking an extreme position. In fact, in this new paper we’re more explicit than we’ve been before that we think the causal story is complex. There are causal arrows going from childhood religiosity to adult religiosity and doctrinal beliefs, and from adult religiosity and doctrinal beliefs to morals and lifestyles, and from morals to lifestyles, and from lifestyles to morals, and from lifestyles and morals to adult religiosity and doctrinal beliefs. It’s complicated.

We’re careful to say we’re only talking about modern developed societies because it’s not at all clear that the religiosity-as-a-tool-to-advance-restricted-reproductive-strategies point applies either to historical societies or to less-developed modern societies. I also made this point in my blog series about churchgoers being restricted individuals in fast groups. (For those of you who are really digging into this material, note that I did that blog series after the Elephant paper was written, so the new information in those posts isn’t reflected in the paper—though, anticipating those findings, we did include a cautionary footnote about the problem of assuming that sociosexuality and fast/slow life history are going to turn out to be easily mapped on one another.)

But despite the complexity of this stuff, we do think that there’s a concrete core here that has been neglected, and that an evolutionary lens helps bring into focus. Humans generally seek to advance evolutionary salient social goals—gaining resources, forming and maintaining cooperative relationships, seeking status and esteem, finding and retaining mates, raising children, and so on. In doing so, they seek out various tools, including personally advantageous social groups, personally advantageous moral positions, and personally advantageous stories about how their own positions are reasonable and generous and backed by benevolent authority. Religiosity and its related moral and doctrinal pronouncements in some situations play a causal role when it comes to lifestyles, but also—perhaps even more importantly—religion and morals can be social tools that are adopted or abandoned in service of basic real-life goals, essentially reversing the usual causal story.

Vaguely interesting (Oct 12)

(1)  “[C]itizens habitually update their party loyalties, their beliefs about their preferred religious text, and their religious commitments to better reflect their preferences on divisive culture war issues. … Put succinctly, culture war issues have power sufficient to alter the so-called fountainheads in political and religious belief systems.”

(2)  How shifting patterns among non-college whites, college whites, and non-whites could affect the 2016 election map.

(3)  “Today, 57% of U.S. adults say the use of marijuana should be made legal, while 37% say it should be illegal.”

(4)  “A single variable—having a criminal record—is a key missing piece in explaining why work rates and [labor-force participation rates] have collapsed much more dramatically in America than other affluent Western societies …. [It] also helps explain why the collapse has been so much greater for American men than women and why it has been so much more dramatic for African American men and men with low educational attainment ….”

(5)  “Only about a third of blacks but roughly three-quarters of whites say police in their communities do an excellent or good job in using the appropriate force on suspects, treating all racial and ethnic minorities equally and holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs.” (No, seriously, think about those numbers.)

Every new generation is the least religious generation

Stories appear pretty regularly about the decline in U.S. religiosity. Usually the data come from either downward trends in church attendance or upward trends in religious “nones”—that is, people who say “none” or “atheist/agnostic” or “nothing in particular” when asked about their main religious identity or affiliation.

I got curious about what this really involves and decided to check the long-term trends in the U.S. General Social Survey (GSS). I combined information on religious attendance and “nones” into a single overall religiosity measure.

The main empirical issue is the age-period-cohort one. We know that the U.S. adult population is made up of less religious folks now than it was, say, 10 or 20 years ago. But how has this occurred? Is it mostly about religiosity declining for everyone over time, as, say, many folks who used to go to church have now stopped? Or is it mainly cohort/generation replacement, where older and more religious generations have been dying off, replaced by younger and less religious generations? Or what?

Looking at the numbers, I find that it’s mainly cohort/generation replacement. Across the 43 years of GSS data, the linear changes within cohorts over time are really weak. That is, looking at, say, people born in the 1950s across the full range of years from 1972 to 2014, there’s little overall change in their religiosity as they age through the years—so, e.g., they have been about as religious in their 50s as they were in their 30s. But the cohort differences are pretty big—e.g., people born in the 1970s have been substantially less religious in their 30s than were people born in the 1950s. (Having said that, an important wrinkle is that most cohorts show a temporary drop in religiosity when people are in their mid-20s. These are ages where most have left their parents’ higher-attendance households but haven’t adopted their own married-with-children pattern that’s typical of mid-adult churchgoers.)

So, if you want to see the long-term trends in religiosity, mostly you want to see how cohorts differ from each other (while smoothing over the temporary mid-20s drop so as not to overestimate the difference between younger and older folks). That’s the chart below. It shows half-decade cohorts starting with people born in the late 1900s (so, born from 1905 to 1909) and ending with people born in the late 1980s (born 1985 to 1989). The different bar segments show religiosity percentages within the cohorts. Most simply: the blues are the true “nones”; the blues plus oranges are people who rarely attend services; the greys are moderately religious; and the yellows are highly religious. The long version is that the bar segments show percentages of the cohorts that: are “nones” who rarely attend religious services (the blue segments, labeled 0); have a religious identity but rarely attend services, along with a few “nones” who attend services with some frequency but not weekly (the orange segments, labeled 1); have a religious identity and attend services with some frequency but not weekly, along with a handful of “nones” who attend services weekly (the grey segments, labeled 2); and have a religious identity and attend services weekly (the yellow segments, labeled 3).


From those born in the late 1900s to those born in the early 1930s, overall there was a trend of decreasing religiosity, but not a very strong one. These cohorts were actually central players in the mid-20th century rise in religiosity. The 1950s were weird in lots of ways, and two of them involved unusually high fertility along with unusually high church attendance relative to prior and later decades.

The modern generational drop really kicked off with those born in the late 1930s. For them and every generation since, each new generation has been unambiguously less religious than the generation that came before it. There were particularly notable declines for those born in the early 1940s and those born in the late 1970s. This is a good reminder of the imprecision of generational labels. When it comes to declining religiosity, a lot of it has been laid at the feet of Baby Boomers and Millennials. Yet the faster changes actually kicked off with the folks in the second half of the Silent Generation and then again for those in the second half of Generation X.

The accumulated generational shifts are a really big deal. For those born in the early 1930s, for example, just under 5% were non-attending “nones” and around 44% were weekly churchgoers. For those born in the early 1980s, in contrast, these two extremes are essentially tied at around 22% each—“nones” increased more than fourfold while weekly churchgoers dropped by half.

An important shift over time has been in the fact that non-churchgoers are a lot more likely to identify as “nones” than they used to. For those born in the early 20th century, only around 10% or 15% of non-churchgoers were “nones”; for the late-1980s generation, in contrast, about half of non-churchgoers are “nones”. You can see this in the chart, where the blue segments (the non-attending “nones”) have been getting bigger, but the orange segments (mostly non-attending folks who nonetheless maintain a religious identity) have only shrunk a bit.

And so, when you see stories about how religiosity is declining or about how young people are less religious than older people, remind yourself that very similar stories could have been (and surely were) written 10 years ago, or 20, or 30, or 40. Of course this doesn’t mean that religiosity will necessarily keep declining across generations, particularly at the rate it has been. The thing is, you never know when something like this might start leveling out, or even if we could have another period like the 1950s where we see sudden reversals in secular trends. So even though religious decline has been happening for a while, it’s always actually interesting news to find out that it’s still happening.

Vaguely interesting (Sept 28)

(1)  “[T]he paper analyzes data on the relationship between study subjects’ beliefs in evolution, their religiosity, and their scores on the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), a measure of critical-reasoning proficiencies …. Far from uniformly inclining individuals to believe in evolution, higher CRT scores magnified the division between relatively religious and relatively nonreligious study subjects.”

(2)  “Between 1980 and 2008–2012, educational assortative mating reversed from a tendency for women to marry up to a tendency for women to marry down in education, whereas the tendency for women to marry men with higher incomes than themselves persisted.”

(3)  “The Reproductive Ecology of Industrial Societies” (part 1 and part 2)

(4)  Is it morally wrong? Abortion: 44%. Homosexuality: 35%. Using birth control: 4%.

(5)  “The sudden, incredible decline in teen births

Vaguely interesting (Sept 23)

(1)  “But Fiske expresses these views in an unvetted attack in an unmoderated forum with no peer review or opportunity for comments or rebuttals, meanwhile referring to her unnamed adversaries as ‘methodological terrorists.’ Sounds like unfiltered trash talk to me. But, then again, I haven’t seen Fiske on the basketball court so I really have no idea what she sounds like when she’s really trash talkin’.”

(2)  “Roughly speaking, a white voter will lean left if she is ‘more college than church’ and will lean right if she is ‘more church than college.’”

(3)  Two-thirds of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. have lived here for 10 years or more.

(4)  “As the economic elite have become more diverse and highly educated, they have also grown more liberal, particularly on social issues. The GOP’s reliance on religious conservatives and racially resentful whites has cost the party an increasingly large share of the ascendant professional class.”

(5)  “The self-promoting academic has emerged hand-in-hand with the marketization of universities …. If you haven’t yet met the Trump Academic, you should probably get out more. Increasingly they will be hard to miss as the motivations coalesce around work which pleases governments, university managers and students.”

Vaguely interesting (Sept 19)

(1)  “Contrary to allocators’ predictions, the average receiver was happier when allocated more money by an unfair procedure than when allocated less money by a fair procedure.”

(2)  “So trade with China hit the U.S. working class hard in terms of jobs and wages. But its consumption benefits flowed far more to the middle and upper-middle classes. This shows how difficult it is to wave away the distributional effects of international trade.”

(3)  “Populist campaigns have prefigured, provoked, and sometimes precipitated political realignments. … In the left-wing strain, epitomized by Long, Perot, Occupy Wall Street, and Sanders, populists champion the people against the elites. In the right-wing strain, it’s also the people versus the elitesbut the elites are attacked for coddling and subsidizing a third ‘out group,’ such as African Americans (Wallace) or immigrants who have entered the country illegally (Buchanan, the Tea Party, and Trump).”

(4)  “[J]ust 3% of American adults own nearly half of guns in the US.”

(5)  “Ten Famous Psychology Findings That It’s Been Difficult To Replicate”

Idle men living with parents: Is it a real, new thing?

Tyler Cowen and Noah Smith recently discussed employment. Cowen mentioned “structural factors” responsible for the recent decline in young men’s labor force participation. When Smith asked what these were, here was Cowen’s answer: “[T]he internet may be the biggest. It is easier to have fun while unemployed. … Maybe employers just aren’t that keen to hire those males who prefer to live at home, watch porn and not get married.”

Cowen is getting this in large part from economist Erik Hurst. Hurst recently summarized some of his points in a speech posted online. The basic argument is that young men (particularly young men without college degrees) are increasingly avoiding work and marriage and living in their parents’ homes in large part because of the lure of the internet and video games. (Derek Thompson has also discussed Hurst’s claims at The Atlantic here and here.)

This struck me as roughly plausible when I first heard it. But then I started focusing in on some of the details. For example, Hurst talks about work and marriage trends of men in their early 20s without really addressing college trends. For example, in discussing the decline in the employment of young men, Hurst notes: “You might think it’s matched by a rise in school attendance for this age group. That is not the case.” Yeah, OK, not “matched,” but how much is offset by school attendance? If, say, 75% of the employment decline is offset by college attendance, then it’s a very different picture than if only 25% is. Another example of a problematic detail is that Hurst makes his points by comparing 2000 with 2014/2015. This compares a strong overall labor market to a weak one. I mean, look, the employment rate for women in their 20s in 2000 was around 71% but in 2014/2015 was only around 66%. The male drop may be bigger, but, again, it matters how much bigger. We need to see some pretty impressive numbers here to believe that we’ve entered a new normal where the draw of online entertainment is keeping lots of young men in their parents’ basements and away from reality-based pursuits.

Basically, these moves tend to artificially inflate the importance of the phenomenon Hurst is discussing. And there are others he uses as well—e.g., making comparisons within the non-degreed when the percentage of non-degreed men is dropping over time (i.e., a bigger problem within a smaller group may not ultimately imply a much bigger problem overall); e.g., talking about marriage drops without simultaneously discussing rising non-marital cohabitation; e.g., talking about living with “parents or close relatives” as though living in an apartment with a similar-aged sibling or cousin is equivalent to living in one’s parents’ basement.

There may be something there, but before we get too excited we need a deck that is less stacked. So I decided to go check some numbers myself. I ended up running two analyses. In the first, I take a long view of male employment and school enrollment using BLS and Census data. In the second, I use the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth to get a very detailed look at men in their mid/late-20s. The overall picture tells me that the idle-men-living-with-parents thing isn’t (yet) a big enough deal to justify talk of a new normal, much less to justify expansive views on its motivating causes.

Long-term trends in young men’s school and work

Here I took BLS data on employment-population ratios from 1948 to 2015 and combined it with Census data on school enrollment from 1948 to 2014 (and used 2014 numbers to fill in 2015, which isn’t available yet). From these sources, we can get the percentage in school and the percentage working, but the wrinkle is that there’s some overlap (i.e., men both working and in school). I used the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth to come up with age-specific estimates of the typical relative work rates of those in school and not in school and used the same relative rate to allocate the overlap in each year—this could throw the numbers off if this relative rate has been changing over time, so take this with that grain of salt.

The chart below shows the trends. Start with the chart for ages 16 and 17 (in the upper-left corner). The blue bars on the bottom are young men working but not in school and the black bars are young men both working and in school—combine these and that’s the BLS employment-population ratio from that year. The green bars are those in school but not working—combine green with black and that’s the Census school enrollment figure from that year. The red bars up top are the idle young men, not in school and not working. For those ages 16 and 17, there has obviously been a big drop in employment, with the combined black and blue sections totaling over 40% in the 1950s but less than 20% following the Great Recession. But was the decline generally offset by the rise in school attendance? Yes, clearly. In fact, there were more idle 16/17-year olds in the 1950s than there are now. There has been a slight rise in the past few years due to declining school attendance, but it doesn’t look to me like it’s enough to panic over. In general, the 16/17 guys are working less than they used to and in school more, but there’s no indication of an important new trend in idleness here.


Let’s move to ages 18 and 19 (upper-right corner). Again, there’s a big drop in labor force participation, from over 60% in the 1950s to less than 40% following the Great Recession. But, again, it’s been mostly offset by increases in school enrollment. The red bars—representing idle young men—have fluctuated between lows around 10% and highs in the 15%-20% range, but without a strong linear trend. The idleness rate is at the high end now, but is about where it was at the height of the major recession in the early 1980s. That’s a real problem, but (1) it’s not some new historically unprecedented level and (2) it’s probably too early to talk about whether the new high level will persist, particularly given the slow-but-steady upward trend in employment since 2009.

The story for men ages 20 to 24 (lower-left corner) is similar to the story for 18/19-year olds. Employment has been dropping, but rising school enrollment has mostly offset the employment drop. We’re now at a high-but-not-unprecedented level of idleness among the 20 to 24 guys, with slowly rising employment numbers since 2009. Again, I don’t see how these numbers can reasonably be sold as a new normal caused by internet/porn/video games.

And now we get to the men ages 25 to 34 (lower-right corner). Here we see a similar story, but with a somewhat more worrisome ending. Employment has dropped since the 1960s, with a huge drop in 2009 that has slowly but only partially recovered since. Education has picked up some of that slack but not all of it, leading to increased idleness rates. The percentage of men ages 25 to 34 not working and not in school increased from an average of around 5% or 6% in the 1950s to 1970s, to around 10% from the 1980s to 2008, to over 16% at the height of the Great Recession, and back down to around 14% in the past couple of years. Is there a troubling trend? Yes. Is it a new normal? Maybe, or maybe not.

Overall, I’d say that (1) we’ve clearly seen long-term trends away from work and towards school for young men, (2) for young men ages 18 to 34 the Great Recession resulted in an abrupt decrease in work that was not meaningfully offset by increased school enrollment, which led to higher idleness rates, (3) for younger young men these idleness rates are basically in line with past serious recessions, (4) but for older young men the idleness rates have been unusually elevated, though declining steadily since the height of the Great Recession. I’m just not sure how compelling a they-love-video-games-too-much-to-want-to-be-productive story is here.

A closer look at mid/late-20s men

Next I turned to the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, both the 1979 panel and the 1997 panel, which give a fuller view but of more limited samples. They have most of the variables we’re interested in—work, school, marriage, cohabitation, and living with parents. They also present a happy accident. As we just saw, we’re mostly interested in men 25 to 34. Not only have the NLSY samples surveyed men in this range, but the 1997 panel ended up catching men ages 25 to 28 both right before and in the early years of the Great Recession. This allows for a three-way comparison—we can look at the 25 to 28 men (1) from the 1979 panel surveyed mostly from 1984 to 1991 (which overall were relatively strong economic years), (2) from the 1997 panel surveyed from 2006 to 2008 (another relatively strong economic period), and (3) from the 1997 panel surveyed from 2009 to 2011 (a very weak economic period). This allows a comparison of a pre-internet strong period and a post-internet strong period, and then a second comparison of immediately pre- and post-Great Recession.

The chart below looks at work and school for these NLSY men ages 25 to 28. We do see an increase in those neither working nor in school (the red wedges) from the 1984-1991 period to the 2006-2008 period—from 10.3% to 13.5%. And then the Great Recession abruptly increased this to 18%. As was generally the case in the earlier chart for men ages 25 to 34, we see a substantial decrease in work coupled with a smaller increase in school enrollment.


The next chart shows living situations—whether they were married, cohabiting, and/or living with parents. The orange, red, and purple wedges are men living with parents (the red wedges are the real point of interest, namely, men living with parents but not with a spouse or cohabiting partner). From the late-1980s to the pre-Great-Recession years, the total living with parents did increase from 21.4% to 24.8%, though most of this increase came not from single men but from married/cohabiting men. In fact, single men living with parents (the red wedges alone) showed only a small increase from 19.5% to 21% over this 20-year period. The big change over this period was away from marriage. But it was not from marriage to living with parents, rather it was primarily from marriage to cohabitation, and secondarily from marriage to living without parents or a partner. The increase in single men living with parents from the late-1980s to the mid-2000s was trivial.


When we compare living arrangement from the 2006-2008 period to the 2009-2011 period, we do see a bump in single men living with parents, from 21% to 24.1%. It looks like this bump is mostly coming from further declines in marriage. Again, I don’t see how we construct a technology-made-them-do-it story here, or how centrally important that story would be even if marginally true.

Getting really detailed

The real payoff of the NLSY data is that we can look directly at very detailed combinations of features. It’s too much to put in a chart, but I’ll describe some central points.

Most important, what are the numbers on the stars of the Hurst/Cowen narrative—namely, men who are not working, not in school, not married, not cohabiting, and living with their parent(s)? Prepare to be underwhelmed. For men ages 25 to 28 in the 1984 to 1991 period, the idle/uncoupled/basement-dwelling were 3.9% of the sample. In 2006 to 2008, they were 4.8% of the sample. Let’s pause here. The story is that we’ve got idle men living in their parents’ basements because of internet porn and video games. The direct look from NLSY data at pre- and post-internet (but pre-Great Recession) men shows an increase in idle basement-dwellers from 3.9% to 4.8%. Now, for the 2009 to 2011 period, the number jumps to 6.7%. Again, is there a troubling trend? Yes. Is it a new normal? Maybe, or maybe not. Is it something that deserves broad conclusions or breathless headlines? Almost surely not.

Further, the bigger gains in living with parents have come not from idle men but from men who work or are in school. Among those not working or not in school, 41% were living with parents in the 1984 to 1991 period, 39% in 2006 to 2008, and 42% in 2009 to 2011. For working men the numbers go from 19% to 22% to 24%. For men in school it’s 21% to 23% to 29%. One can cite statistics on increased living-with-parents next to statistics on idleness, but that doesn’t mean that the increase in male idleness is the main driver of increases in young men living with parents.

The NLSY data among men ages 25 to 28 indeed show a big decrease of 17 points from the late-1980s to the mid-2000s in men who were working, married, and not living with parents—from 38.7% down to 21.7%. The main offsetting increases came from men who were: working, cohabiting, and not living with parents (+7.8); idle and not with a partner or parents (+2); working and not with a partner or parents (+1.7); working, cohabiting, and living with parents (+1.3); and idle, cohabiting, and not living with parents (+1.1).

The transition from pre- to post-Great Recession resulted in a further 3-point decline in men who were working, married, and not living with parents, as well as declines among those working and not with a partner or parents (-1.5), and those working, cohabiting, and not living with parents (-1.3). The main offsets in the height of the Great Recession were from men who were idle, not partnered, and living with parents (+1.9), as well as idle, cohabiting, and not living with a parent (+1.3).

It’s a nice story, but…

There are, I think, three big things going on with these data. (1) Young people have been marrying less and later. (2) Young men have been working less and going to school more. (These two major trends interact, and result generally in a slower transition to adult patterns.) And (3) recessions suck, and great ones suck greatly.

Most of the other trends here are either small or incidental to these Big 3. Yes, a few more men are living with parents. It’s partly a small thing of its own, and also about extended educations and avoided marriages, and also about the Great Recession. Yes, a few more men are idle. It’s partly a small thing of its own, and also about declining marriage rates, and also about the Great Recession. Yes, new technology is great. It probably has an effect on reducing incentives for work and school, but not a very big one.

Like I said, I was initially inclined to be persuaded that Hurst’s thesis of idle young men was importantly true. Why is that? Mainly, I had an overblown impression of the extent of the current problem of youth idleness in comparison with prior recession periods. But it’s probably also because it’s easier for those of us in comfortable positions to look at the current struggles of many young adults and think that it’s mostly because it’s what they really want, because they like it that way, because they deserve it. The story about new technology enhancing leisure quality is fantastic for those purposes (with the added bonus of enhancing the storyteller’s feelings of moral superiority). Such stories are really easy to believe. But, you know, that’s why we check the numbers.

Vaguely interesting (Sept 15)

(1) “We can continue doing things the old way which means we will continue to produce noisy, unreplicable research, or we can change for the better. The simplest and most productive thing we can do so is to increase the power of our research. In most cases, this can be achieved simply by increasing the average sample size of our studies.”

(2) “As many as 1 in 5 Americans would be in poverty without Social Security and tax credits for the working poor.”

(3)  “But as with many branches of psychology, wise interventions are taking a battering. A new wave of studies that attempted to replicate the promising experiments have found discouraging results.”

(4)  “The Democratic Party is becoming less white, less religious and better-educated at a faster rate than the country as a whole, while aging at a slower rate.”

(5) “Peer reviewers themselves may view the monument as a place of worship.”

Social science for the pleeps