Young People Aren’t Partying Like They Used To

Like many people in my early college years, I enjoyed the quintessential house party experience. But as I approach my early thirties, I find my interest in these big social events waning. Indeed, I am not alone in this: an ever fewer number of my peers are bothering to host parties, opting for limited and low-key social gatherings and hang outs. The few parties I manage to show up to typically end up with a shortfall in attendance, and those who do arrive come late, leave early, or both.

Now there is nothing wrong with this trend, especially insofar as it involves folks like myself who are getting older and therefore busier and more tired. But it is interesting to consider what other forces may be at work here, as the New York Times does with its piece on “The Death of the Party”.

First, the statistics:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of hours per day 15- to 24-year-olds spent attending or hosting social events on weekends or holidays — the times they are most likely to go to parties — declined sharply from 2003 to 2014 to nine minutes from 15. (That may not seem like much, but consider that this is the average of all those who fit the demographic.) The percentage who participated in these activities dropped to 4.1 from 7.1 over the same span.

Their tame night lives began in high school. According to a nationwide annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, the time high school seniors devoted to partying has slid dramatically over the decades. Except for a few years, the number of homebodies who never attended parties as high school seniors has steadily increased, to 41.3 percent in 2014 from 11.6 percent in 1987, and it’s accelerated in the new millennium, more than doubling since 2001. Over a third of Gen X high schoolers fought for their right to party at the tail end of the Reagan administration, spending more than six hours per week at gatherings; just 10.7 percent of the most recent Obama-era high school seniors did.

So my observation is not merely anecdotal: young people are in fact partying less than previous generations. But this is happening even among people half my age, e.g. in their prime for social gatherings and extroversion. What accounts for this? Naturally, the initial culprits involve technology — namely the Internet, social media, and smartphones — which together have influenced the way we interact and socialize.

There are a number of obvious reasons the modern Internet may make parties an unpalatable option on a Saturday night compared to the pleasures of a screen. First, there’s the communal connection one may get without much emotional strain from social media, texting or instant messaging. The panoply of at-home entertainment options now immediately available renders quaint the impoverished selection at a 1990s Blockbuster. And if you’re looking for a new romantic partner, swiping for 10 minutes on Tinder may be more efficient than trekking an hour each way only to encounter the same people you always see.

Social media may have made it a snap to invite people to a gathering, but technological innovations have also made it easier for them to cancel.

“I can imagine trying to throw a big party,” Mr. Friedman said, “inviting a bunch of people on Facebook and counting the RSVPs who said ‘attending,’ and then watching them text me one by one that night that they’re just too tired to make it. Texting makes flaking out extremely simple.”

Moreover, the threat of digital exposure when you haven’t asked over a specific person is a headache some would rather avoid. “I have a friend who still won’t talk to me,” Ms. Watson said, “because she didn’t make the tiniest guest list for a Christmas party I had — my own sister didn’t get invited — that she saw pictures of on the Internet.”

Granted, this started well before such technological forces emerged; the Times cites Robert Putnam’s controversial 200 book Bowling Alone, which made the argument that community cohesion and social participation have been eroding for decades, due mostly (at first) to television. Novelist David Foster Wallace said as much in a 1996, predicting that “It’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen”. This issue is not rooted in the 21st century “Information Age” but is rather part of a much longer trend that arguably started in the Industrial Era, where people found themselves thrown into these regimented work schedules.

Indeed, economic insecurities have also been cited as a major disincentive for young people to party. Whether you are hosting or attending, socializing often requires a certain degree of financial investment, including sparing time away from your low-paying and often inflexible job. Work can often do a number on one’s mood and energy, making partying the last thing anyone wants to do after a long day or week.

But culture plays a role too (albeit shaped by the aforementioned factors). Data from a range of institutions like the Justice Department, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and various think tanks have found that Millennials — the catch-all term usually denoting those ages 15 through 30 — are far tamer than previous generations: they have lower dropout rates, higher college attendance, and lower use of hard drugs and alcohol. They also report higher rates of anxiety and depression as well, which also precludes any extroverted behavior.

Technology no doubt amplifies these trends, making it easier to remain physically disconnected from the pressures of social obligations (while nonetheless allowing for a modicum of social interaction on one’s own terms). But it really comes down to a complex intersection of different external factors. Young people live in an increasingly uncertain world, and face tremendous academic, economic, and even political pressure. While today’s youth might not knowingly attribute their disinterest in parties to these pressures, it is not unreasonable, in my mind, to think that the subsequent mental and physical exhaustion discourages further exertion in social interaction.

Of course, there is another, more simpler theory, expressed by several commentators to my Facebook post about this; to paraphrase, parties have always been an annoying and pointless experience, best enjoyed by only those handful of people with the social capital and charm to make the most of it. Much like hookup culture — another alleged staple of youth experience that is actually less prevalent than many make it out to be — parties were never that mainstream. The only abnormal thing was that they were ever so popular to begin with. Young people have just wisened up and found ways to finally circumvent this expectation to party all the time.

I am not sure what to make of the claim, given that I never really found parties to be that objectionable. But it is yet another interesting factor to consider. I do not think the trend is good or bad — it just is. Social functions have always changed with technology, culture, and economy. It might be a mundane point to make, but it is important to see the wider context and not get into some moral panic every time the supposedly “old way” of doing things — whether good or bad — changes.

What do you think?

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