The shift is evident in what the report, like a great deal of other social science in recent years, describes as a mix of good and bad news about American society. The good news is that some of the most troubling social trends of the second half of the 20th century have been abating in our time. Last year, for instance, the U.S. divorce rate hit a 50-year low. Teen pregnancies are at the lowest rate seen since they began to be systematically tracked in the 1930s, and the rate continues to plummet: In 2018, the teen-pregnancy rate was half of what it was in 2008. Even the rate of out-of-wedlock births, which had been climbing steadily since the 1950s, peaked around 2008 and has been declining modestly since—from 52 births per 1,000 unmarried women that year to 40 in 2019. The abortion rate has also been steadily falling, and is now probably lower than it was before the Supreme Court nullified all state abortion restrictions in 1973.
The bad news is that rates of more positive behaviors are declining too. Most notably, both marriage rates and fertility rates are at all-time lows in the United States. Total fertility in our country is now about 1.7 births per woman, well below the population-replacement rate. Younger Americans are having trouble pairing off—so that not only teen sex but also teen dating have dipped dramatically.
This mix of seemingly good and bad news is no paradox. The good news is often just one consequence of the bad … The same pattern is evident beyond sexuality and family too. Fewer teenagers are dying in car accidents because fewer teenagers are getting driver’s licenses. There is less social disorder, we might say, because there is less social life. We are doing less of everything together, so that what we do is a little more tidy and controlled.
As the desire to be “self-raised” without relation or obligation progresses in people who really believe in it, it produces art of a significantly lower quality. Or, perhaps of no quality. Quality ceases to matter, and all that is left is the quantitative enumeration of identities, the checking of representation boxes. Eventually, the “Dark Satanic Mills” start to churn out the same, boring, repetitive, pandering Netflix shows. These shows celebrate identity and “speaking your truth”—but entirely through cliché. The point isn’t to create something good, as the Good, the Beautiful, and the True have been abolished. The aim is just to rack up status points, likes, and dividends. This is how we see Dante’s Satan in the end: a being of quantification and automatic appetite, flapping his wings mechanically, frozen in place, unable to do anything other than chew on a few of the most famous among the damned.
When a ’70s or ’80s rockstar declares that he is on the highway to hell before burying his head in a mountain of cocaine, it seems believable. He really is runnin’ with the devil. But a contemporary “Satanist,” logging on to doomscroll or gaze at pornography, is devoid of this same rebellious aura. He or she is simply going on the computer, like every bored teen on planet earth. Below deck, Satan is no doubt rubbing his hands excitedly. But his nefarious plans lack the epic scale and carnage of a Hitler-on-Stalin throwdown. He has settled for making people watch lousy Netflix original programming. That is atomized Satanic “individualism” at its terminus, a sad and numb person opening tabs in Google Chrome and then slamming the laptop shut when Mom unexpectedly walks in the room. Not exactly Stalingrad, but Satan will take it.