Every generation thinks they have it the hardest when it comes to finding love, but it’s hard to look at mine and conclude that we don’t have a good case. Never before have young people been having so little sex—at least not since we began counting such things. Never before have young people been lonelier. Never before have we been stalked so thoroughly by our past selves, every blunder cataloged in perpetuity.
I know about this and think about it a lot, because I’m smack in the middle of it. I’m a 27-year-old on all the apps. To be safe, I go into every bookstore, slide books off the shelves, and peek through the opening between Normal People and Americanah ready to lock eyes with my forever beau. But it seems all the would-be husbands have been left functionally castrated by porn addictions, or slaving away at a 9-to-5 trying to pay for a tiny apartment, or too distracted by bio-hacking and Reddit boards to go on a date.
By the time my parents were my age, so the meme goes, they had a house and two kids. A lot of men in my generation aren’t even having sex.
One of those men is Shane. Shane, 20, is a junior at Penn State studying economics. He comes from a happy family and says he’s never had trouble making friends. And yet he can’t seem to bring himself to create profiles on the dating apps he downloaded months ago. That’s because he’s never had sex.
“I want a relationship, I don’t want to be a loner anymore,” he told me. But Shane is convinced that he’s not good enough. Specifically, he’s not good enough on the measures that dating apps cull for. He’s short, for one. So Shane’s been calorie counting, protein tracking, and lifting compulsively for about two years in the hopes of achieving the ideal body type: lean and fit. He reads Reddit’s relationship boards to get a sense of what women complain about—bad sex, manners, politics, hygiene, and overbearing in-laws, to name a few—to see how he can be the best date when he finally works up the courage.
“A lot of my anxiety ties back to the openness and honesty that people have on the internet,” he says. “It shows me that there is a lot to be worried about. People aren’t so forgiving all the time.”
There have always been men who have had a hard time. The question right now is why there are so many men in Shane’s predicament.
There’s a lot of blame to go around. Among the culprits: Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and the sexual revolution and the pill and late empire and late capitalism and Tinder. But I’d like to start with parents and the concept of “snowplow parenting.”
Helicopter parents were infamous in the early aughts for involving themselves in the minutiae of their children’s lives, from diets free of GMOs to making sure they were first-chair violinists. But Dr. Michael Ungar, a Ph.D. in social work who specializes in what makes people resilient, says “snowplow parents” of the later millennials and Gen Zers are on a whole other level. They clear their children’s boundless horizons of even the tiniest of obstacles—think dubious doctors’ notes to get more time on the SAT.
That frictionless world our parents created has since spread from schools and playgrounds to every aspect of life via apps. We can order dinner, or a ride, or some help putting furniture together, and for the last ten years, at least in theory, get a date. But one consequence of all this ease is that it seems to be diminishing our ability to build resilience. According to Ungar, the challenges and pain of early relationships and breakups train us for mating as adults. “You don’t simply learn resiliency as a concept,” he says. “You learn it through interacting with others.”
When you’re raised in a world perpetually protected from skinned knees, you tend to be scared of running fast.
“What am I supposed to do, go up to someone at the grocery store and say, ‘Oh, you’re buying bananas too?’ Really?” That’s what Jeff, a 32-year-old assistant teacher from Orange County, California—who withheld his last name to protect his privacy—told me when I asked how he’d meet people if he got off the dating apps that he despises. His fear of approaching women in a grocery store isn’t just fear of rejection, but of being perceived as creepy or dangerous.
“I’ve approached women in real life in the past, but I wouldn’t do it these days,” says Reid, a 42-year-old video editor in Los Angeles who has profiles on OKCupid, Hinge, and Tinder.
A 2020 Pew Study suggests that the #MeToo effect—the way that reckonings over sexual impropriety influences how normal Americans date and relate—has had an impact on men like Jeff and Reid. Sixty-five percent of Americans believe “It has become harder for men to know how to interact with someone they’re on a date with”—let alone someone they’re not even on a date with yet.
But according to Jean Twenge, the problem is generational. Twenge is a psychologist at San Diego State University and an expert on what she has termed iGen—those born around 1995. “One thing I was struck by with this generation was how interested they were in safety,” she says. Her conclusions are based on the findings from surveys of eleven million of us. She says that many of my generation describe being single as “safer.” For women, that might mean curbing the risk of being assaulted or harassed. For men, that might mean worries about being falsely accused of those things, or just accused of being a creep. And there’s always the risk of being disappointed or having your heart broken.
Dating apps give users a sense of protection from such risks. They’re portals to people you can tailor to your exact specifications, down to height and horoscope. OKCupid has twenty options in addition to “man” and “woman” when it comes to self-selecting your gender—and that’s well before you’ve spelled out your TV preferences or sexual kinks.
But the fruits of this new technology and the freedom it promised don’t taste so sweet.
The birthrate in the U.S. is at the lowest it’s been in more than a century. From 2008 to 2018, the share of men under 30 who hadn’t had sex in the past year nearly tripled, from about ten percent to about 28 percent. Marriage has fallen out of favor, with many singles putting it off until their thirties, or else shacking up with a partner and shrugging off the legal part. “We are headed for a birth rate that looks more like Europe and Japan,” Twenge says.
“I’m noticing a lot more that women, on their profiles, say they don’t want children,” says Jeff, the teacher. Other dealbreakers include religion, education level, ethnicity, politics, location, family plans, and substance preferences. “One of my friends decided he doesn’t want a relationship, like, ever,” adds Jeff. “It ends for him at the hook up.” That friend told Jeff that he had a vasectomy at age 25.
Justin Clarke is a 23-year-old virgin living in Brooklyn. He told me he was around 12 when a video suggested by YouTube’s algorithm opened the door to Reddit forums like r/ForeverAlone, which colored the next decade of his life. He had a tight knit group of friends, which included girls—but the red pill and incel sites he frequented put him off from dating because they “preached the dangers of being in relationships with women.” (Incels— “involuntary celibates”—hate or resent women, and are endlessly envious of the men they see as superior, dubbed “Chads.”)
Being on the incel sites felt fun, Justin said, “but in a misogynistic type of way.” Now he says he regrets ever logging on in the first place. “I was a kid,” he told me. “I didn’t know any better.”
Justin attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York, where he says he became jealous of the happy couples he saw walking around. He started jogging, and in November of last year, downloaded Bumble. “It was a disaster,” he said. “Most of the women I matched with sent me their OnlyFans profile”—a platform where users can pay to access, among other things, personalized porn.