There may be no faster way to kill a party than to talk about the wonderful ways people used to party. The temptation is sometimes acute: At my college, for instance, it was a beloved tradition to tell freshmen that "nobody rages anymore," a phrase used mostly as a means of perpetuating the tradition of hard partying amongst the younger classes. But like saying "awkward" in the middle of a pause-filled conversation, waxing poetic about the good old days has a way of dousing ice water on the fragile life of any social gathering. It brings out everyones' social insecurities, and ultimately dooms the gathering's coolness—all because someone brought up the possibility of a better option.
I was reminded of the lethal nature of party nostalgia while reading a New York Times story decrying the "Death of the Party" last week. In the piece, writer Teddy Wayne uncovers data showing that the frequency of house parties in America and sections of Canada is on the decline for young members of Generation Y. Millennials—that buzzy group defined by the Pew Research Institute as people who fall between the ages of 18 and 33—are foregoing the hassles of hosting and attending these traditional informal gatherings. It's a trend Wayne attributes to a host of semi-worrisome causes, including the academic rigor of high school years, the rise of social technology, trauma inflicted on Millennials by economic hardship, and foodie culture.
When you take a broader look at the data, the party habits of Millennials are interesting in their own right.
A tad more self-conscious than the usual crotchety Millennial think piece, the New York Times' house-party postmortem nevertheless instills more embittered nostalgia than it does understanding. Which is a shame, because when you take a broader look at the data, the party habits of Millennials are interesting in their own right. Not better or worse, just—wonderfully, organically—different.
It's worth reviewing the numbers that the New York Times story offers us, which are meaty and revelatory. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, young Millennials are indeed partying less frequently and more briefly than their generational forebears. Between 2003 and 2014, the average number of hours per day that 15- to 24-year-olds spent attending or hosting social events on a weekend or holiday dropped from 15 minutes to nine. Moreover, the percentage of Generation Y-ers who attended house parties on weekends and holidays declined from 7.1 percent to 4.1 percent in that time frame. Millennials didn't party nearly as often in high school either. According to a nationwide annual survey from the University of California–Los Angeles, the number of those who never attended a party rose from 11.6 percent in 1987 to 43.1 percent in 2014. And while over a third of Generation X high school seniors spent upwards of six hours per week at social gatherings, only 10.7 percent of their Millennial counterparts did the same.
Yet if you take a broader look at the data, the decline of house parties is hardly cause for concern. Millennials are perpetuating the American youth's long, proud tradition of hedonistic partying—just in a way that may appear strange to a generation that reacted very differently to some similar historic circumstances. The New York Times data was pitted in large part against that of Generation X, which emerged out of another jaded and economically troubled era. Their childhood saw the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War; they also faced a tough job market. But as Claire Dederer reported for Pacific Standard in the November/December 2014 issue, Gen X-ers largely embraced the leisure lifestyle unemployment afforded them. "My friends and I arranged our lives so we could go to shows, write down our feelings, and smoke," Dederer wrote. "And now we have 401ks so empty, so barren, you can hear the tumbleweeds a-blowin' through."
For members of Generation X, Dederer argues, economic circumstances shaped the slacker philosophy. Her take lines up with the thinking of demographer Neil Howe, who believes job troubles fostered indifference and ambivalence among Gen X-ers. "For millions, we're talking about involuntary un- or under-employment leading over time to loss of skills and detachment from the labor force," Howe said at a Federal Reserve Conference in 2014. Ultimately, this philosophy put Generation X in a very precarious place during the Recession, during which time they lost 45 percent of their wealth. These findings shed a more positive light on the leisure habits of Millennials. They seem to have learned, well, something from their predecessors' failings. The evidence indicates they are reacting to tough economic times by letting loose in concentrated doses. Whereas Gen X adapted to tough times by adopting the façade of indifference, de-stigmatizing joblessness, and holding house parties, Millennials work hard and play hard—they favor the singular, epic night out.
For members of Generation X, economic circumstances shaped the slacker philosophy.
Millennials are sticking with their jobs more than previous generations did. They're also less into drugs and are more into living a healthy lifestyle. But in their social lives, Millennials continue to act as young and dumb as their predecessors. In 2009, researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that members of the "Cyber Millennial" generation—highly educated, tech-savvy professionals who were, at the time of the study, in those post-college years the Bureau of Labor statistics didn't generally cover—lead the way for having five drinks in one sitting. The authors of the study suggested that these habits may be holdovers from teenage and college years—which suggests that if kids aren't living it up like they used to in school years, they're making up for such passivity upon graduation.
The NIAA data dovetails with reports from club owners, who say attendance amongst this generational sect is dwindling. For Millennials, going to clubs is a more occasional and targeted experience than it was for Generation X. (According to marketing expert Mark Borkowski, the main attractions for this age group are top DJs and great sound systems.) But venues that cater to special-interest enthusiasts are still thriving. And these niche gatherings are intense experiences: Millennials have fueled the rise of EDM raves and festivals like Burning Man and Coachella. No one ever accused these attendees of killing the tradition of youthful debauchery; it is at these venues that Gen Y-ers truly live up to their YOLO life philosophy.
House parties remain a very real thing, even if they're not as popular as they once were. "We still have great parties!" one friend protested when I posted the New York Times story to my generation's preferred social network, Facebook.
For the real distinction, I defer to the wise words of singer Alessia Cara, the 19-year-old Gen Z-er who does a remarkable job of encapsulating the Millennial mindset in her song "Here." Taking the perspective of a girl who is dragged to a house party, Cara sings about stewing in a corner and putting up with "people who don't care about my well-being." But Cara's not anti-social; she would just rather be in the company of her genuine peers:
Somewhere with my people
We can kick it and just listen to
Some music with a message, like we usually do
And we'll discuss our big dreams
How we plan to take over the planet
Cara's words echo Gen Y's obsession with health; their strong personalized networks; their strangely optimistic worldview—and how all of these things are sometimes at odds with the traditional house party. Like Millennials, the song telegraphs both grumpiness and undue optimism. These two seemingly oppositional feelings cohere in her message: There's a better social experience out there, as long as you're with the people who share and support the weird things you find worthy of celebration.
Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.