There’s been a good deal of worry over the last year about the future of marriage in the United States. For those who see marriage as pivotal to a thriving society, there’s reason for concern: According to a report last year from Pew Research, as of 2021, a quarter of 40-year-olds had never been married, a “record-high share,” up from 20 percent in 2010.
The latest wrinkle in the marriage anxiety discourse? Right before the holiday season, The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote that increased political polarization among young Americans could “threaten marriage.”
The board argued that politics is “becoming more central to people’s identity,” and because young women increasingly identify as liberal and young men increasingly identify as conservative, that will lead to a troublesome mismatch of values. At The Atlantic, Adam Serwer argued that the overturning of Roe v. Wade, specifically, has made dating more political, because it affects intimate choices so profoundly. According to Daniel Cox, the director of the Survey Center on American Life at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, Gen Z men are less likely to say they are feminists than millennial men. The Post relied in part on data from the Survey Center on American Life to make its case.
Because I think sterile poll results don’t always tell the whole story, especially when it comes to something as multifaceted and mysterious as human attraction and compatibility, I asked Cox if I could review some of the in-depth interviews that he and his team conducted with the public opinion and market research company Ipsos. He was kind enough to send along 21 interviews — of anonymous Americans under 30 conducted over the last year or two — for me to read.
And after getting a look under the hood, the picture appeared much more complicated — and less dire than the “collapse of American marriage” contemplated by The Post — for young Americans and their potential future relationships. To start, what’s often ignored in the marriage panic discourse is that over the 10-year period from 2011 to 2021, the divorce rate has gone way down, as well. Also: Among the interviews that I read, there were a couple of L.G.B.T.Q. respondents; one in five members of Gen Z identifies that way, so the growing political divide between men and women in Gen Z may be less relevant.
Several respondents said that they had dated people with different political beliefs — a few were even married to people with different political views. And some said that any kind of extreme belief was itself a hindrance. “If they get cultish about things politically that’s also a very big turnoff,” said a 29-year-old politically moderate man.
That kind of response didn’t surprise me, having read the work of Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, two political scientists who wrote a guest essay for The Times in 2020 arguing that the vast majority of Americans, around 80 percent, “follow politics casually or not at all.” So when anyone, including those in the under-30 set, is looking for a partner, it’s quite possible that ideological differences or partisan politics don’t even come up early on in a relationship.
When asked what their dating deal-breakers are, most of the interviewees didn’t say politics — they talked about core values, keeping an open mind and treating other people with respect. More than one specifically said that a deal-breaker would be if, on a date, someone mistreated a waiter or waitress. One 22-year-old moderate woman said: “Pretty much my biggest thing is respect. Like, if you’re disrespectful to other people, that this is an instant no, whether you’re respectful to me or not. If you’re disrespectful to your family or if you’re just disrespectful to like, waitresses, that’s like a huge no, I don’t. I will not. I don’t like people shutting people down.” As my friend Anna Louie Sussman argued last year in a widely read Times guest essay, men’s lack of emotional sensitivity may loom as a larger issue.
The handful of people who mentioned political deal-breakers tended to be very liberal or very conservative — perhaps falling in that roughly 20 percent of Americans who follow politics closely. In that group, views on abortion did come up as a deal-breaker. As one liberal 21-year-old woman put it, “I think it absolutely is a deal-breaker because of course, when it comes down to it, if I would become pregnant within now or the next two years, I would simply not keep that child.”
But it shouldn’t be difficult for her to find someone who shares her views; according to Gallup, only 11 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds think that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. And in the interviews I read, attitudes about abortion didn’t strictly stack up along party lines. One Republican respondent said the fall of Roe made her “sad,” because it felt as if we were going backward as a country.
As my colleague Michelle Cottle wrote on Sunday, young voters don’t like aligning themselves too closely with political parties in general, because they tend not to trust institutions (a point I’ve made with regard to organized religion). Which, to me, further suggests that many under-30s may not have hard and fast rules when it comes to the ideological allegiances or political affiliations of the people they date — and ultimately marry.
That said, as a creaky, married millennial, I can’t claim to know what it’s like to date as a young person in 2024. And so much has happened since those interviews were done — from the Israel-Hamas war to Donald Trump’s assorted court cases. So I want to hear directly from you as we enter another presidential election year. If you’re under 30 and actively dating, please respond to my questionnaire below. I may reach out to you for further discussion and inclusion in a future newsletter.