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Hookups and the Pursuit of Vocation

The New York Times published an article [1] July 12 on the University of Pennsylvania’s flourishing hookup culture – a culture propelled by women who see vocational ambition as a greater good than personal romance:

These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s.

Samuel Goldman noted [2] Monday that many college students still value relationships, and that this seemingly endemic hookup culture may be confined to “the minority of a minority devoted to the status competition that defines the upper-middle-class.”

However, the modern American university does condition – and often change – students’ priorities. After young adults leave for college, many [3] embrace vocational goals over relationship-centric lifestyles. While it may not be an all-encompassing trend, it is distinctive and growing. Many Americans still enjoy a sense of belonging and roots, but the younger generation likes to move and be free. Many prefer commercial pursuits over constancy or community.

In After Virtue [4], Alasdair MacIntyre spoke of the most coveted “virtue” in his world: efficiency. The “bureaucratic manager” (modern businessman) was the “dominant figure of the contemporary scene.” Today it may be the entrepreneur or the venture capitalist. Lives and values are fixated on the workplace, rather than on home life or community, even as the workplace itself disintegrates into home offices and rented space in start-up incubators. Our greatest good is encapsulated in the freedom and efficiency of individualism.

Reading the Times article with this lens, one notices that A., the anonymous interviewee, speaks of romantic relationships in business terms: she speaks of the “cost-benefit” analyses, “low risk, and low investment costs” of hooking up. These are the terms of the venture capitalist, investing minimally with a multitude of partners, playing the percentages with an expectation of failure instead of striving to make one endeavor a success. In a culture that promotes ambition and freedom over roots, the desire for “unencumbered striving” makes sense, for rising to the top requires autonomy and boundlessness. A. told her interviewer,

I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together … That sounds terrible. I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.

As mutable, mortal human beings, we never stop changing. Whether she marries at 20 or 70, she will change. Our bodies age and souls develop. In addition, while A. may not realize it, life is never perfectly stable – nor can her prospective stability guarantee happiness. According to Aristotle, happiness is a virtuous activity [5]. It is not a passive thing that happens to the individual – it is a goal achieved through action. This is A.’s perspective towards work: she sees herself as an active participant in a quest for corporate excellence. By working hard and efficiently, she believes she will find vocational happiness. Why, then, does she think married bliss is a passive thing, eventually endowed on individuals with sufficient self-awareness?

While in college, I possessed more individualistic goals: I wanted to be a roving international reporter, and didn’t envision marriage until my late 20s (if at all). But when I met my future husband, I gave up these plans. I realized my ambition, which would necessarily involve abandoning personal ties and community rootedness, would not bring lasting happiness. A life alone may fill the ego, but it leaves our souls empty.

Upon first meeting us, many look at my husband and me with a degree of incredulity. Their first comment is something like, “But you both are so young!” Indeed we are. But love is a choice, made every day. We believe it is a commitment to permanency, renewed even as we ourselves change. Love is a virtue, as much as it is an emotion. Marriage challenges the individual to exercise love with humility, loyalty, and selflessness. It is not easy, nor does it guarantee lifelong happiness. But to those who see love as the highest virtue, a life of relationship and belonging is the highest vocation one might find.

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#1 Comment By The Wet One On July 16, 2013 @ 9:53 am

According to many, no choice is permitted in these matters. There is only one way and any other way is heresy, evil, uncultured and damnable.

Such is freedom.

#2 Comment By Robert Long On July 16, 2013 @ 10:09 am

Interesting post. As expected, you have a unique personal perspective on this story. This post also serves as a final push for me to just go ahead and read After Virtue.

#3 Comment By Josh McGee On July 16, 2013 @ 10:45 am

My wife and I were very young when we married: she was 19, and I was 22. I recognize this goes against the norm and the recommendations and all that, but I’ve always considered odd the notion that one should purposely turn away love – and also refuse (in a sense, though that is a strong word) to offer / return love – because it didn’t fit into one’s plans for the day or month or year.

I did not intend or expect to be married at a certain age when I was even younger. But when I hear people offer blanket advice saying, “Wait until you are at least ‘x age’ to get married,” I always find myself thinking, “But that would have meant being closed off to this love that I am in for all these years. What does it even mean to recommend when someone should marry?” It all seems strange. We offer so much advice about when to get married (or not), failing to offer the more tender advice to be open to and willing to love. Certainly the latter is a more vulnerable proposition – you never know when someone will come along and spoil your plans by loving you – with more elements outside of one’s own control. But that wildness in life is surely a warmer, more tender, yet also more adventurous path. It is indeed a more barbaric world that teaches a young person to be open minded about everything except the proposition of love, which one should remain closed off to until ‘age x.’

#4 Pingback By Morning Round-Up 7-16 | Sharing Liberty On July 16, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

[…] Hookups and the Pursuit of Vocation […]

#5 Comment By Anonymous On July 16, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

You are making some sweeping generalizations about a whole generation, asserting that they are increasingly independent and “anti-roots”. Do young professionals exist who spend their 20’s pursuing careers at the exclusion of attachment? Yes. Are there more of them than a decade or three ago? Who knows. The “hookup” circle does not directly overlap the “ambitious” circle (think venn diagram) so I suspect the sliver of people you are describing is less symptomatic of a generation and more a long standing, vocal minority that now has social media to broadcast their lifestyles.

You do well criticizing the argument that waiting to be stable and mature is utopian thinking, but I wonder if you are not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Many people do marry too young. And while they may work hard every day to love each other, and focus so hard on what they have that they don’t look around at what they missed, the indisputable truth is that some things can only be done while single. Marrying too young can mean forfeiting a whole world of maturing experiences.

It is convenient that you are criticizing a lifestyle that you let go — but not everyone who chooses to pursue it sleeps around, and many are in fact the wiser for waiting on relationships.

You are writing on a blog (perhaps from a suburb?), using broad brush strokes to criticize people who not so long ago you say you identified with (independence, professional ambition), and if I may say, wistfully describing the globe trotting lifestyle they have — do you think maybe you are writing an essay to yourself to dignify a choice you are not sure you meant to make? Your last paragraph suggests this theory to me. You leave your thesis altogether to make it clear you are living your new dream. Perhaps the article should have been called, “Vocations Can Change”?

#6 Comment By Gracy Howard On July 16, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

Thank you for your comment! Here are a couple quick notes: You write, “The ‘hookup’ circle does not directly overlap the ‘ambitious’ circle (think venn diagram) so I suspect the sliver of people you are describing is less symptomatic of a generation and more a long standing, vocal minority that now has social media to broadcast their lifestyles.”

I do reference Samuel Goldman’s note that “this seemingly endemic hookup culture may be confined to ‘the minority of a minority devoted to the status competition that defines the upper-middle-class.'” Also, I note that even the ambition-centric circle is not “an all-encompassing trend,” although “it is distinctive and growing.” I’ve researched the rootlessness that often accompanies college graduates — there is a 2008 Pew poll on the subject, as well as corresponding census data. College graduates are much less bound to place, and cite careers as their main reason for migrating to different states or cities. You are right in saying ambitious people are not automatically participants in the ‘hookup’ circle. That is very true. But they do share more career-centric priorities, and that was the point of this story.

You write that I am “wistfully describing the globe trotting lifestyle,” and ask if I am “writing an essay to yourself to dignify a choice you are not sure you meant to make?” The “dreams” of college were founded upon a self-focused ambition that, indeed, left me wistful for something else. When I committed to a relationship, to roots, and to marriage, I found fulfillment.

This quote from an excellent Rod Dreher [6] helps describe my feelings on the matter: “It is inconceivable to many Americans today that true freedom comes through limiting your freedom by committing to a worthwhile discipline, which entails self-giving and self-denial. It is a paradox of life, one recognized by Christianity, that by giving up your life, you gain it — but only, of course, if you give it up for something worth the sacrifice.” Marriage is most definitely worth the sacrifice. (I encourage you to read the full Dreher article)

Two other interesting piece on ambition vs. roots, if you are interested: [7] and [8]

#7 Comment By Timothy Black On July 16, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

Certainly, the justifications people proffer tell us more than nothing about the actual reasons for their behavior, but just as certainly they should not always be taken at face value–especially in sexual matters. I think Ms. Howard may be taking these college students’ talk too seriously (it is less clear whether this applies to the Times author).

That the young women in the article explain their promiscuity by reference to an imagined future career reminds us that the rhetoric of status-seeking achievement has infiltrated much of our lives (as TAC’s favorite lefty, Christopher Lasch, pointed out decades ago); but it doesn’t stand up to the least scrutiny as an actual explanation. Going on dates, a committed relationship, calling someone your boyfriend, don’t actually take much time, as a moment’s reflection reveals: Do these young women really stay in, working, on Friday and Saturday evenings? Do they eat all their meals standing up? Do the parties and hook-ups really take, together, less time than a relationship? Less charitably, perhaps: do they really think their (anecdotally numerous) volunteer activities are terribly relevant to future employment? (I think it much more likely that they hope to meet dating prospects at such events, just like all well-adjusted boys and girls hope from age sixteen onward.) Do they really think they’re going to have “important careers”? (they’re at Penn after all, not Harvard).

Wherefore their behavior then? Well, is it really a mystery? These women, like all women for all time, hope to hook high-status males. And the young men, like all men, wish to sleep with (attractive) women. When there are no rules or (immediate, anyway) consequences to discourage casual sex–and there aren’t–it becomes a means by which both sexes try to achieve their end. Sex and desire also make people feel wanted, and no psychologist needs to tell us that people want to feel wanted.

Likewise, although many will find this too much, this reader of TAC would also wager real cash that the young women interviewed in the original article are not, shall we say, nines and tens (if only photos were available–I’m sure an enterprising Penn student could do the require legwork), though he would also bet that they are not particularly unattractive either. The most attractive women do manage to force their boyfriends to stay around (the converse is probably not true). And the sixes and sevens think their best strategy is to put out to make up the difference. They may be right.

#8 Comment By Anonymous On July 16, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

Thank you for approving my comment! I’m glad you are open to other perspectives on this issue. Honestly, I find many people’s opinions on relationships to be preachy — as if any of us have very much control over when we meet Mr or Mrs Right. I’m not saying yours is, but I would say that there is a very large group of people that you don’t reference or seem to acknowledge even exists. It’s people in their 20’s who are passionate about careers almost as a result of the absence of opportunities relationally. Not everyone finds community right away. And while census data cannot prove it, those who plant themselves in one spot until they eventually marry could be guilty of “settling”.

There are so many things affecting our generation — the worst depression since the 1930’s, the absence of jobs in the town you grew up or where you graduated college that force you to travel, the new professional environment that encourages moving between companies to get promotions, etc. It’s hard to stay in one town and work for the same company these days. If you and your husband are making it work, you are the exception. Relationships are hard and it’s not a matter of giving up your “selfish” career ambitions, getting a Match.com account and being open to sacrificing for love.

I’m rambling. But again — I’m glad you are living your vocation. I’m not sure the vocation you criticized in your post is as prevalent as you think.

#9 Comment By Andy On July 16, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

“Let me assure you that this post was written with enthusiasm, in support of a decision I will never regret.”

Isn’t that just a little bit presumptuous? May I ask how many years of happiness you have under your belt to be so sure that it’s “ever after”? Because the tone of your article leads me to suspect it is closer to 5 than 50. In which case, how do you know you won’t come to regret this decision? Do you think that a happy marriage never goes sour? After all “As mutable, mortal human beings, we never stop changing. Whether she marries at 20 or 70, she will change. Our bodies age and souls develop. In addition, while A. may not realize it, life is never perfectly stable – nor can her prospective stability guarantee happiness.”

I chose to bring this up because I interpreted your argument as “I married young and have been happily married for a short period of time. Therefore I understand marriage, and I can assure you that A is setting herself up to be unhappy.” Isn’t it at least a little possible that you chose different paths and will both be happy with your choices? Indeed, could it be that A is the most qualified person to make her own life decisions, and that she could’ve even considered the arguments you present (the article reads like so many others on TAC: “A thinks differently than me, what A can’t understand is…”).

This personal comparison would be a lot more useful if you would wait until you are both 80. Then you could (maybe) say something like “I am here having a big ass party with my 32 grandchildren and A is all alone eating cat food in a condo full of ugly pop art. Guess who understood what goals were worth working for?” As it stands your article seems like a really long “No huh!”

#10 Comment By CK On July 16, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

“Upon first meeting us, many look at my husband and me with a degree of incredulity. Their first comment is something like, “But you both are so young!””

Wait till you hear the comments should you have more than three kids. And if you have 5 kids, that’s a whole other level of commentary.

#11 Comment By J Lloyd On July 16, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

Beautiful. You honor yourself and your husband, and I respect you. Good luck. Good night, Gracy.

#12 Pingback By The American Spectator : The Spectacle Blog : Worshipping the Idol of Sex On July 17, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

[…] “Sex on Campus,” which documents the college hookup culture, along with Gracy Howard’s TAC piece on the same, I can’t stop thinking about Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen […]

#13 Comment By Heriberto R. Valdez On July 23, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

This is a very true saying on marriage”The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” A kid wants love between their parents than everything else.

#14 Comment By Vi On October 12, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

An interesting article and for those interested in learning more about the relative happiness associated with extrinsic and intrinsic goal attainment, I’d suggest learning more about ‘Self-Determination Theory’ ( [9]). In short, intrinsic goal pursuit and attainment (relationships, physical health, community) is linked to greater happiness, while extrinsic goal pursuit and attainment is either unrelated or in fact linked to greater UNhappiness… Definitely something to ponder when setting your goals in today’s capitalist culture.