Home Politics Opinion | Young Americans aren’t marrying. Politics helps explain why.

Opinion | Young Americans aren’t marrying. Politics helps explain why.

Opinion | Young Americans aren’t marrying. Politics helps explain why.

Ideological polarization is now a mainstay of American politics. Millions of young Americans will go home this Thanksgiving and find themselves in uncomfortable situations with relatives — especially uncles, apparently — who love former president Donald Trump, hate vaccination or think the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection had very fine people on both sides.

In some ways, polarization is exactly what one would expect in a large, unwieldy democracy such as the United States’. Americans no longer agree on many questions of how to live or what to live for. These differences can’t just be papered over through good faith dialogue — because they are real.

The problem with polarization, though, is that it has effects well beyond the political realm, and these can be difficult to anticipate. One example is the collapse of American marriage. A growing number of young women are discovering that they can’t find suitable male partners. As a whole, men are increasingly struggling with, or suffering from, higher unemployment, lower rates of educational attainment, more drug addiction and deaths of despair, and generally less purpose and direction in their lives. But it’s not just that. There’s a growing ideological divide, too. Since Mr. Trump’s election in 2016, the percentage of single women ages 18-30 who identify as liberal has shot up from slightly over 20 percent to 32 percent. Young men have not followed suit. If anything, they have grown more conservative.

This ideology gap is particularly pronounced among Gen Z Whites. According to a major new American Enterprise Institute survey, 46 percent of White Gen Z women are liberal, compared to only 28 percent of White Gen Z men, more of whom (36 percent) now identify as conservative. Norms around sexuality and gender are diverging, too. Where 61 percent of Gen Z women see themselves as feminist, only 43 percent of Gen Z men do. It is little surprise that the “manfluencers” — particularly those such as British American kickboxer Andrew Tate who promote outright misogyny — have their biggest following among boys and young men.

In another era, political or ideological differences might have had less impact on marriage rates. But, increasingly, the political is personal. A 2021 survey of college students found that 71 percent of Democrats would not date someone with opposing views. There is some logic to this. Marriage across religious or political lines — if either partner considers those things to be central to their identity — can be associated with lower levels of life satisfaction. And politics is becoming more central to people’s identity.

This mismatch means that someone will need to compromise. As the researchers Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox have noted, about 1 in 5 young singles will have little choice but to marry someone outside their ideological tribe. The other option is that they decline to get married at all — not an ideal outcome considering the data showing that marriage is good for the health of societies and individuals alike. (This, of course, is on average; marriage isn’t for everyone. Nor is staying in a physically or emotionally abusive marriage ever the right choice. But, on the whole, while politically mixed couples report somewhat lower levels of satisfaction than same-party couples, they are still likely to be happier than those who remain single.)

The marriage dilemma reflects a broader societal one: whether people can find ways to adapt to a new normal of ideological and political polarization, instead of hoping — against all evidence — that it will dissipate. Unfortunately, Americans have not equipped themselves to discuss, debate and reason across these divides. Americans have increasingly sorted themselves according to ideological orientation. They are working, living and socializing with people who think the same things they do. Particularly on college campuses, a culture of seeking sameness has set up young Americans for disappointment. They expect people to share their own convictions and commitments. But people’s insight and understanding about the world often comes from considering alternative perspectives that may at first seem odd or offensive.

Gen Z is still relatively young, and the Trump-era divisions between single men and women might yet reverse themselves. But there’s a good chance they won’t, particularly if Mr. Trump manages to inject the body politic with his distinct brand of existential dread during and after the 2024 elections. It is worth thinking both ahead of and beyond Mr. Trump. A cultural shift might be necessary — one that views politics as a part of people’s identity, but far from the most important part. Americans’ ability to live together, quite literally, might depend on it.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through discussion among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board: Opinion Editor David Shipley, Deputy Opinion Editor Charles Lane and Deputy Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg, as well as writers Mary Duenwald, Christine Emba, Shadi Hamid, David E. Hoffman, James Hohmann, Heather Long, Mili Mitra, Eduardo Porter, Keith B. Richburg and Molly Roberts.

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