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The Kids Are All Right, But Their Parents Are Out of Control

Extramarital sex has increased greatly for Americans in their 50s and 60s.

Young people often think of their parents' generation in condescending terms. You know the caricature: They're devoid of verve, stuck in their ruts. In short, couch potatoes.

Well, it turns out they are not so much lounging on their own sofas as sleeping in other people's beds.

In a research brief published by the Institute for Family Studies, sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger of the University of Utah reports the total number of Americans who report they have sex outside of marriage has held steady, at around 16 percent, for the past three decades.

"But the broader trend has obscured startling changes," he writes. "Since 2000, older Americans and cheating more, while younger Americans are cheating less."

Specifically, according to data from the General Social Survey, 20 percent of those over age 55 report they are currently fooling around with someone who is not their spouse. Among those under 55, that figure is only 14 percent.

While determining the exact reasons for this trend is difficult, generational attitudes toward sex surely play a major role. It's no coincidence that the highest rates of extramarital sex are among people born between 1940 and 1959.

"Since 2000, older Americans and cheating more, while younger Americans are cheating less."

"Those are the first generations to come of age during the sexual revolution," Wolfinger notes.

Looking at attitudes toward infidelity, Wolfinger found "we still disapprove of sex outside of wedlock, but we disapprove less strongly than we used to." While the shift to a less-moralistic attitude has been greatest among Americans 60 and over, those in their 50s have actually turned more strongly against extramarital sex.

Given that those same 50-somethings are increasingly fooling around, a fundamental question arises: Are they just being hypocrites? Or are many people in older middle age witnessing their friends and colleagues destroy their marriages by having affairs? That could account for the higher level of disapproval.

And unions really do get destroyed. Fifty to 69 "is the age range in which extramarital sex is most likely to produce the dissolution of a marriage," Wolfinger reports.

"Even as overall divorce rates have fallen in recent decades, there has been a startling surge in 'gray divorce' among the middle-aged," he adds. "Midlife adultery ... seems to be both the cause and consequence of a failing marriage."

This reminder comes at an opportune moment, in that previous research has found infidelity increases in the summer months. So if you value your marriage—and want to avoid sexually transmitted diseases—be careful out there. Those AARP-sponsored conferences offer more temptation than you might think.