Is Gen Z more pragmatic when it comes to love and sex?

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Young people are not dating and having sex in the same way that previous generations did. Is their relationship approach more pragmatic?

Are you ready to settle down?”

This is the question posed by Yale College student Kyung Mi Lee in a February 2020 piece for the university’s Yale Daily News, Settling Down: Romance in the Era of Gen Z. Will she and her peers join the millennial trend of postponing marriage?

Lee believes the answer is yes, nearly two years after she wrote the article, but for a different reason than her millennial counterparts. “In my cultural imagination, [millennials’] aversion to long-term relationships [means] a lot of hooking up,” Lee, 23, says. In other words, it appeared to her that millennials delayed marriage because they were too busy enjoying the single life. She believes that “people are averse [to long-term relationships] because they’re more… introspective about the types of relationships they want to be in”.

A growing body of research supports this viewpoint: members of Generation Z appear to take a more pragmatic approach to relationships than previous generations, and they don’t have as much sex.

“They recognise that they may have different partners at different times in their lives [who] may fulfil different needs,” says Julie Arbit, Global SVP of Insights at Vice Media Group. In her research, which looked at 500 respondents from the UK and US (of mostly Gen Z and millennials, with some Gen X included “for comparison”), she’s found just one in 10 members of Gen Z say they are “committed to being committed”.  

Similar conclusions have been reached by other researchers. According to a study of Gen Z from India, for example, 66% of respondents accept that “not all relationships will be permanent”, with 70% rejecting a “limiting romantic relationship”.

Researchers and members of Generation Z attribute this to a number of factors.

For starters, this generation is entering adulthood at a particularly perilous time, with the Covid-19 pandemic, worsening climate change, and financial insecurity. Many people believe that they must first achieve stability for themselves before bringing another person into the picture. There is also increased online access to relationship information, which provides Gen Z with the language they need to articulate both who they are and what they want from a relationship that does not compromise their identity and values. “They’re hyper-focused on themselves, and it’s not because they’re selfish,” Arbit says. They understand that they are responsible for their own success and happiness, and that they must first take care of themselves before they can take care of others.”

Seeking stability

“In the 1960s and 1970s, a typical 25-year-old man could support a family with his income and not expect his wife to work,” says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families in the United States. For many Gen Zers, the notion that a 25-year-old could support an entire family, as well as that a man would expect a stay-at-home wife, no longer fits contemporary circumstances – and, for some, appears laughable.

Instead, according to Arielle Kuperberg, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the United States, Gen Z is prioritising a solid financial foundation as individuals, which is lengthening the path to marriage. “People are taking longer and longer to settle down because they are taking longer and longer to settle down.” Lee and her friends are in agreement. She claims that being part of “the most dangerous, financially unstable generation in history” contributes to their desire to achieve “financial independence” before settling down with a long-term partner.

As a senior at university, Lee believes she and her peers are more likely to prioritise their careers over relationships in order to achieve financial stability. “It’s rare for me to have a friend who says, ‘I’m going to move here so I can be with my partner,'” she says. Rather, they are concerned with what is best for their careers and how they can incorporate relationships into that.

They know they need to be able to take care of themselves before they can take care of others – Julie Arbit

Kuperberg’s research on Gen Z supports this; she discovered that younger people who are just starting out in their careers are less likely to go on formal dates than millennials.

“I don’t believe it’s because they don’t want long-term relationships. “I think they’re putting them off,” she says.

Furthermore, Kuperberg has discovered that current insecurity in young adulthood has caused more young people to return home with their parents because they cannot afford to live on their own in their twenties. “The rise in more casual relationships and decline in more serious relationships… is because [the latter] are simply more difficult to form.”

Recently, this is due in large part to the Covid-19 pandemic. This has exacerbated the trend of young adults being unable to live on their own. In the spring of 2020, Kuperberg interviewed a Gen Z man who had moved from Washington, DC to North Carolina with his parents shortly after the pandemic hit the country. He told researchers he wouldn’t date again until he returned to DC.

Soul searching

According to a global Vice Media Group study, Love After Lockdown, conducted in September 2020 with 45% Gen Z respondents, 75% were currently single and not dating during the pandemic. Many stated that they did so in part because they wanted to spend more time alone getting to know themselves before pursuing a relationship.

“I began to consider myself, what I want to do and what I don’t want to do… “I learned a lot,” said an anonymous Gen Z man from Italy who participated in the survey. “I’m physically distant from everyone and I can take a step back and say, ‘Who am I?'” said a Gen Z woman in the United States.

Without a doubt, This attitude could be the result of a lack of options during lockdowns, rather than a Gen-Z proclivity for introspection. Members of Generation Z from all over the world, on the other hand, have many more resources to help them figure out who they are, including social media apps like TikTok, where therapists discussing attachment styles and healthy relationship tips are commonplace.

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