Social Change Isn’t Inevitable, or: Sometimes People Change Their Minds

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how American Millenials’ support for same-sex marriage is a sign that marriage equality for LGBT people in the US is just a matter of time. Millenials are a larger group than Baby Boomers, larger than Gen Xers, way larger than the silent generation[1]. In ten years, we’ll be making enough money that politicians will listen to us. We’ll be having families we’ll be raising to support LGBT rights. We just have to wait for our parents and their parents to get too old to vote, and we’re golden.


Unless the reason the majority of young people support gay marriage is a product of our being young. I hope we don’t grow out of seeing LGBT people as full people deserving of marital happiness, and not “sick” with some disease or spiritual affliction. I think that’s a good idea that will stand the test of time. But I don’t know that it will. Most of the hippies got a haircut and got married. Most of them are still married.[2] Or we might just care less as we get older and same-sex marriage will take a back seat, for many of us, to student loan reform or a broader social safety net. The issues that fire us up today might not in twenty years.

Unless, before our children come of age, an intermediate generation with opposing values controls the culture. Free Love was big among Baby Boomers when they were my age, but before my generation could overwhelm the cultural consciousness, a bunch of GenXers started whining about hookup culture.

Unless the 30% of Millenials who oppose same-sex marriage have more children who oppose same-sex marriage more firmly than our own support it. We know young people make up their own minds–that’s how our generation got to support same-sex marriage in greater numbers than our parents’–and are influenced by their peers. That influence could work in either direction. And opponents of same-sex marriage might be more willing to become single-issue voters. I don’t know. None of us does.

So, while it’s very encouraging that young people support same-sex marriage, it’s not a sign of inevitable victory. Just as “feminism” has become a dirty word among some people, being part of or an ally to the LGBT community might fall from being the only stance a socially liberal person could take to being a controversial subject. Feminism wasn’t “settled in the ’60s” as my father always wishes, and we can’t say that same-sex marriage will be settled in ’20s, or stay settled in the ’40s. These are cultural battles we have to fight every day, and probably will have to fight every day, probably forever.

From the CIA World Factbook

[2] It was hard to find a good breakdown of the US divorce rate statistics, but StatsCan has some very good graphs showing the divorce rate and average age at divorce for the past 30 years. It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions, but if you look at both of those numbers, you’ll find that in the ’80s, there were probably at least 1/2 of divorces coming from generations older than the Boomers and by 2008, at least half were from generations younger than the boomers. (The other possibility is that, in the 80s, only older Boomers got divorced and that, 30 years later, only the tail end of the generation was getting divorced.) If Boomers got divorced at rates higher than younger generations, you would expect a much greater rise in the average age at time of divorce over 30 years than the 5 years we observe.

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