Young Adults Less Conventional in Sexuality, Morals

"Baby Busters" have a significantly different lifestyle from older Americans when it comes to morality and sexuality, a new Barna Group study reported.


At a time when most Americans see a decline in the moral condition of the nation, the survey, which was released Tuesday, found Busters' views to be less traditional and less moral compared to their predecessors.

Revealing the significant change in Americans' perspectives and behaviors related to sexuality, the study found that Busters – those in their 20s and 30s – were twice as likely to viewed sexually explicit movies or videos; two and a half times more likely to report having had a sexual encounter outside of marriage; and three times more likely to have viewed sexually graphic content online.

Their attitudes toward sexual activities were also less conventional. More than two-thirds of the generation said that cohabitation and sexual fantasies are morally acceptable behaviors. For the older generation – those over the age of 40 – half agreed. Most Busters also contended that engaging in sex outside of marriage and viewing pornography are not morally problematic. Only one-third of pre-Busters agreed. Also, almost half of young adults believed that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are acceptable, while only one-quarter of older adults said the same.

“We expect to see this mindset of sexual entitlement translate into increased appetites for pornography, unfiltered acceptance of sexual themes and content in media, and continued dissolution of marriages due to infidelity," research director David Kinnaman said in the report. "It seems entirely possible that current events such as the Mark Foley scandal, instances of abuse by clergy, and the sexually oriented school shootings of recent months are not mere aberrations, but symptoms of a sexually unrestrained society.”

Kinnaman suggested that churches address the issue in new ways rather than the traditional cautions typically given.

"For Christians to connect with Busters requires fresh ideas and connecting points to help young adults deal with overwhelming amounts of sexually charged media," he said. "The strategies that affected Boomers are falling flat among Busters. We need thoughtful means of intervention and discussion, a new emphasis on biblical counseling, and meaningful forms of accountability. Every church in America has a responsibility to provide its congregants with a menu of relevant and biblical resources that will help people live morally healthy and fulfilled lives.”

The Barna study researched further into other moral behaviors of both generations. Young adults were more likely than older adults to say that in the past month they had used illegal drugs and had gotten drunk. Busters were also twice as likely as their predecessors to use profanity in public, to say mean things about others behind their back, to tell something to another person that was not true, to do something to get back at someone who hurt or offended them, to take something that didn’t belong to them, and to physically fight or abuse someone, Barna reported.

In regards to behaviors on the Internet, young adults were ten times more likely than older adults to download or trade music online illegally.

The research group noted, "While some of that gap can be attributed to the relative comfort of the younger adults with the technologies involved, a considerable degree of the gap must be credited to the different moral standards of the two adult segments."

A large gap between the two generations was also seen in their opinions about morality. Young adults were significantly more likely to accept gambling, profanity, intoxication, and illegal drug use as morally acceptable behaviors.

Additionally, only three out of 10 Busters view moral truth as absolute compared to nearly half of all pre-Busters; less than half of Busters felt humans should determine what is right and wrong morally by examining God's principles while two-thirds of the older generation agreed; and nearly half of Busters said that ethics and morals are based on "what is right for the person" compared to only one-quarter of pre-Busters.

"The research shows that people’s moral profile is more likely to resemble that of their peer group than it is to take shape around the tenets of a person’s faith," said research director David Kinnaman in the report. "This research paints a compelling picture that moral values are shifting very quickly and significantly within the Christian community as well as outside of it.”

In general, a majority of pre-Busters said they follow a set of principles or guidelines when making moral and ethical choices. But less than half of Busters said the same.

The two generations crossed on a few behaviors that they found acceptable. This includes the acceptability of abortion, allowing the “f-word” on broadcast television, and deeming divorce not to be a sin. They were also equally likely to have given someone "the finger" while driving, to smoke, to buy a lottery ticket, and to place a bet or gamble.

When measuring the role of faith and its influence on young adults, the survey found that born-again Busters and non-born again ones were indistinguishable in half of the behaviors. Born again Busters were somewhat less likely to illegally download music, to smoke, to view pornography, to purchase a lottery ticket, or to use profanity. However, they were more likely than non-believers to try to get back at someone and to have stolen something.

Across generations, born again Busters were much less likely to act in a "moral" manner than were born again older adults. Born-again adults over 40 were also more "moral" with such behaviors as cohabitation, gambling, abortion, sex outside of marriage, profanity, pornography, same-sex marriage, and the use of illegal drugs.

Placing the study's findings into context, Kinnaman pointed out that "“the morality of Busters comes from a very different background. For instance, divorce, crime, single-parent households, and suicide were much more prevalent while Busters grew up. Boomers took moral experimentation to new heights, but Busters now live in a world where such experimentation is the norm, not the exception."

"Busters have a more disconnected, individualized, less trusting spin on morality. They are trying to create a sense of identity because they feel that shaping influences such as family, church, and community have failed them. Boomers experimented to overthrow the morals of their parents, while Busters live with a mindset of trying to survive.

“It is important for churches to understand the natural skepticism of Busters as well as their desire for spiritual and conversational depth,” Kinnaman added. “Young adults do not want to hear on-the-stage monologues about moral regulations. To earn access to their hearts and minds, you have to understand each person’s unique background, identity, and doubts, and must tangibly model a biblical lifestyle for them beyond the walls of the church.”

Data from the Barna report are based on seven separate surveys of more than 7,000 adults from across the nation. The studies were conducted from summer of 2003 through October 2006.