Gen Z’s Romance Gap: Why Nearly Half of Young Men Aren’t DatingDaniel A. Cox February 9, 2024
Until very recently, American culture has operated on the flawed notion that teenage dating and sex required little encouragement. Teenage romance was once seen as a natural part of American adolescence. This, it turns out, is completely wrong. Teenage dating is not inevitable and it’s a rapidly disappearing part of the American teenage experience. These relationships often served as inspiration for Hollywood’s tragedies and comedies, but in real life they are frequently formative and incredibly valuable for young people. Moreover, the decline of teen dating may be having an especially pernicious impact on the development of young men.
In the late 1990s, Monroe County, NY, where I grew up, launched the “Not Me, Not Now” campaign to encourage teens to abstain from sex. Sex education classes in my high school offered little information, and conversations about healthy relationships and dynamics were absent. Much of the public and political attention was focused on reducing unfortunate outcomes of teenage sex. The local campaign in my community was part of a national movement to reduce teen pregnancy. The Clinton administration made addressing teenage pregnancy a priority in their first term, proposing a “national mobilization” to combat it. In 1996, the Department of Health and Human Services launched “A National Strategy to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.”
It worked. Teen pregnancy fell steadily during the 1990s and continued to fall over the next two decades, mostly because more teens avoided sex altogether. Governmental surveys have recorded double-digit declines in teenage sexual experiences since the late 1980s.
For most Americans, the decline of teen pregnancies is a reason to celebrate; and for many, falling rates of teen sex represent an equally positive development.
But it’s not just sex that’s declined among teens; it’s romantic relationships overall. Teens are dating less. A survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life found that only 56 percent of Gen Z adults—and 54 percent of Gen Z men—said they were involved in a romantic relationship at any point during their teenage years. This represents a remarkable change from previous generations, where teenage dating was much more common. More than three-quarters of Baby Boomers (78 percent) and Generation Xers (76 percent) report having had a boyfriend or girlfriend as teenagers.
Forty-four percent of Gen Z men today report having no relationship experience at all during their teen years, double the rate for older men.