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Hookups and the Pursuit of Vocation

The New York Times published an article 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 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 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, 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. 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.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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