More than 60 percent of young men are single, nearly twice the rate of unattached young women, signaling a larger breakdown in the social, romantic and sexual life of the American male.
Men in their 20s are more likely than women in their 20s to be romantically uninvolved, sexually dormant, friendless and lonely. They stand at the vanguard of an epidemic of declining marriage, sexuality and relationships that afflicts all of young America.
“We’re in a crisis of connection,” said Niobe Way, a psychology professor and founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at New York University. “Disconnection from ourselves and disconnection from each other. And it’s getting worse.”
In the worst-case scenario, the young American man’s social disconnect can have tragic consequences. Young men commit suicide at four times the rate of young women. Younger men are largely responsible for rising rates of mass shootings, a trend some researchers link to their growing social isolation.
Societal changes that began in the Eisenhower years have eroded the patriarchy that once ruled the American home, classroom and workplace. Women now collect nearly 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Men still earn more, but among the youngest adults, the income gap has narrowed to $43 a week.
Scholars say the new era of gender parity has reshaped relationship dynamics, empowering young women and, in many cases, removing young men from the equation.
“Women don’t need to be in long-term relationships. They don’t need to be married. They’d rather go to brunch with friends than have a horrible date,” said Greg Matos, a couple and family psychologist in Los Angeles, who recently penned a viral article titled “What’s Behind the Rise of Lonely, Single Men.”
Recent years have seen a historic rise in “unpartnered” Americans, particularly among the young. The pandemic made things worse.
As of 2022, Pew Research Center found, 30 percent of U.S. adults are neither married, living with a partner nor engaged in a committed relationship. Nearly half of all young adults are single: 34 percent of women, and a whopping 63 percent of men.
Not surprisingly, the decline in relationships marches astride with a decline in sex. The share of sexually active Americans stands at a 30-year low. Around 30 percent of young men reported in 2019 that they had no sex in the past year, compared to about 20 percent of young women.
Only half of single men are actively seeking relationships or even casual dates, according to Pew. That figure is declining.
“You have to think that the pandemic had an impact on some of those numbers,” said Fred Rabinowitz, a psychologist and professor at the University of Redlands who studies masculinity.
Young men “are watching a lot of social media, they’re watching a lot of porn, and I think they’re getting a lot of their needs met without having to go out. And I think that’s starting to be a habit.”
Even seasoned researchers struggle to fully account for the relationship gap between young women and men: If single young men outnumber single young women nearly two to one, then who are all the young women dating?
Some of them are dating each other. One-fifth of Generation Z identifies as queer, and research suggests bisexual women make up a large share of the young-adult queer community.
Young women are also dating and marrying slightly older men, carrying on a tradition that stretches back more than a century. The average age at first marriage is around 30 for men, 28 for women, according to census figures.
Heterosexual women are getting more choosy. Women “don’t want to marry down,” to form a long-term relationship to a man with less education and earnings than herself, said Ronald Levant, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and author of several books on masculinity.
In previous generations, young women entered adulthood in a society that expected them to find a financially stable man who would support them through decades of marriage and motherhood. Over the 1950s and 1960s, that pattern gradually broke down, and today it is all but gone.
Women are tiring of their stereotypical role as full-time therapist for emotionally distant men. They want a partner who is emotionally open and empathetic, the opposite of the age-old masculine ideal.
“Today in America, women expect more from men,” Levant said, “and unfortunately, so many men don’t have more to give.”
The same emotional deficits that hurt men in the dating pool also hamper them in forming meaningful friendships. Fifteen percent of men report having no close friendships, a fivefold increase from 1990, according to research by the Survey Center on American Life.
“Men are less naturally relational than women,” said Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution whose new book, “Of Boys and Men,” has drawn wide praise.
Reeves points to a recent Saturday Night Live sketch that reimagined the neighborhood dog park as a “man park,” poking fun at “this reliance of men on women to do the emotional lifting for them.”
Social circles have been shrinking for men and women, especially since the pandemic, but men struggle more. Thirty years ago, 55 percent of men reported having six or more close friends. By 2021, that share had slipped to 27 percent.
“Women form friendships with each other that are emotionally intimate, whereas men do not,” Levant said. Young women “may not be dating, but they have girlfriends they spend time with and gain emotional support from.”
Aaron Karo and Matt Ritter, both in their early 40s, study the male “friendship recession” in their “Man of the Year” podcast. It arose out of an annual tradition of gathering at a steakhouse with several male friends, all close since elementary school.
“Guys are taught to prioritize career,” Karo said. “Also romantic relationships, although it doesn’t seem like they’re doing a very good job at that. Making friends and keeping friends seems to be a lower priority. And once guys get older, they suddenly realize they have no friends.”
The podcasters and their friends created the annual gathering as a way to keep their friendship alive. It spawned a year-round group chat and a “Man of the Year” trophy, awarded to the most deserving friend at the annual dinner. “We treat friendship as a luxury, especially men,” Ritter said. “It’s a necessity.”