Annie Kate Cutler, 24, has a “gym crush.” She has for a couple of weeks now. Every time she goes to the gym, she sees him: tall, muscular. Dark hair. A mustache.
Annie Kate has been strategizing a way to talk to her gym crush for weeks. Should she compliment his hat? Tell him he’s cute?
“I’m probably developing a plan as we’re talking,” she tells me.
“Wait, why don’t you just talk to him?” I ask. “Like, why all this planning?”
It’s just not that simple, she says. It’s actually pretty “high stakes.” If she makes a move and it goes poorly, she’d have to go to the gym at a different time just to avoid him.
When I ask her if that’d really be the end of the world, she laughs. “No, not at all,” she admits.
To say that I had similarly confusing conversations with almost all the young people I interviewed about dating would be an understatement. They fit some of the stereotypes I had — and you probably have — about Gen Z: glued to their phones, indecisive, hyper-focused on themselves.
But as I continued my reporting, I realized that no generation has gone through the same challenges that Gen Z has faced. And no previous generation has experienced a dating landscape like the one that exists today.
Christine Emba, columnist for The Washington Post and author of “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation,” told me, “I think there’s a big shift in dating culture overall for everyone, but especially concentrated for (Gen Z) is the shift to online dating — and not only online dating, but app-based dating.”
Emba added that the rise of dating apps has changed not just how people get dates, but how they behave in real life.
It’s clear that Gen Z is navigating wholly uncharted dating waters, and as I interviewed many members of this generation and spoke with experts on young love, I came to feel acute sympathy. I began to understand why the Gen Z dating landscape is the way it is.
The state of dating today: What does dating look like in 2023?
Gen Z members — people born between 1997 and 2012, per Pew Research Center — are anxious. They’re pragmatic. And, according to one recent study, just 1 in 10 are “committed to being committed,” per the BBC.
From what I’ve observed, members of this generation are overly cautious. Or maybe acutely indecisive. They’re very aware that not every relationship is going to work out. They also see an endless buffet of options every time they open a dating app. So why commit?
Gen Z’s unique mindset has blurred the lines of traditional dating milestones they inherited from previous generations. Young people today are hesitant to say that they’re dating someone, much less being exclusive with them.
“Commitment does mean tying yourself to something,” Emba said. “In a culture that emphasizes maximizing your own individual success, the idea of commitment can seem doubly scary.”
Gen Z has spawned a myriad of new dating terms. There’s “talking to someone.” “Hanging out.” “Situationships.” It seems like Gen Z will say almost anything to describe dating someone without implying actual commitment.
The new dating normal
Each member of Gen Z I interviewed was well-versed in new dating norms. For example, Lindsey King, 24, told me that she’s in a situationship right now, which she defines as “dating with everything but the label.”
I asked her how it’s going. “When I think about it, it’s frustrating,” she said. “When I don’t think about it, I’m like, oh, this is fun and no pressure.”
Lindsey told me that she’d been chatting with her guy since February, but they’ve had a few breaks during which she’s dated a few other people.
“If you already spend all this time with him and you like him,” I asked, “why don’t you commit?”
I asked a similar question in almost all of my interviews. Most answered, as Lindsey did, that commitment was scary — either they found it terrifying or that their generation did.
Emba told me that this fear of commitment stems from a lack of discourse on what relationships look like. “I feel like in a lot of spaces, we’re not necessarily talking about what relationship formation looks like,” Emba said.
Emba used the word “training,” as in, we’re not training Gen Z on how to make relationships work, how to “pick one person and make commitment a part of it.”
The hesitancy to commit can also, according to Emba, come from choice paralysis. “You know that if you commit to someone, then you’re cutting yourself off from all those other options,” she said.
Waiting until they’re ready
Gen Z does not take commitment lightly. So when they do consider commitment, they’re prioritizing their emotional well-being and their financial status, too.
As Arielle Kuperberg, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, told the BBC recently, “Gen Z is prioritizing a solid financial foundation as individuals, which is lengthening the path toward marriage.”
Take Enrique Martinez, 25. He’s been with his girlfriend for 10 years. When I asked him if they’ve considered getting married, he said they’re waiting until they’re in a “spot where we’re financially stable.”
Similarly, Seth Ahlers, 23, told me, “I would say just generally speaking I’d be more ready to be married right now if I wasn’t so poor.”
“I have this vision of where I need to get myself to be eligible to date,” he continued. “If you don’t have anything to offer, like stability, there’s not much point in dating.”
When I interviewed Blaise Justice, 23, she told me that she’s mostly just dating for fun right now. “It’s all casual and easy-going and surface level,” she said.
I got the sense that she avoided dating people that she could commit to, but Blaise told me that she’s trying to open herself up to it. “If I met someone naturally, I’d be willing to explore it.”
“But I’m not in the market for that right now,” she concluded.
How dating apps and social media have changed the game
Dating in the digital age adds an additional layer of complexity. And it’s not just dating apps causing issues, but social media platforms, too.
Take, for example, Porter Morrison’s experience with his last girlfriend.
They were “super in love,” but then they had their first big fight. Porter, now 23, told his girlfriend, “You are always on your phone.” On dates. At dinner with his family, even.
At this point in their relationship, they were talking about getting married. She’d gone wedding dress shopping.
But Porter couldn’t get over the phone thing. “I felt like everything that we were doing was just so that she could put on a show for social media,” he said. Eventually, they broke up.
An over-reliance on social media and dating apps makes it difficult for singles to connect with people in person, as well, Emba said.
“If you see someone on a dating app, you know that they’re open to a romantic overture. You know that they’re there to date,” she said. “If you see someone in the real world, they could be open to date, but they could also be dating someone.”
She continued, “I think a lot of people feel like it’s safer to not talk to people in person and try not get into a situation that can be awkward.”
In each of my interviews, I asked if, when they saw someone in person that they thought was cute, they’d approach them. Eight out of 10 said no.
“Not even if you knew you’d never see them again?” I countered.
“Literally never,” one person said.
What are the negative effects of dating apps?
Here’s the thing about dating apps: They’re actually not all that interested in helping its users find love.
“Ultimately, the app is more invested in its own revenue than in getting you to marry or have sex — so they’re trying to motivate your engagement,” Natasha Dow Schüll, author of “Addiction by Design,” told the Evening Standard last year.
Despite this, Gen Z uses dating apps as their primary way to date. According to Pew Research Center, 59% of adults aged 18 to 29 have used a dating app or website.
When I asked Emba what she thought about dating apps, she said, “I think that dating apps have been, overall, harmful to dating life.”
When dating apps were first introduced roughly 10 years ago, Emba said, they felt revolutionary. “Now after having (dating apps) for a decade ... people are realizing that they’re getting burned out and dating absenteeism is huge,” she said.
This dating burnout is a result of having too many options, which naturally lends itself to an unwillingness to commit.
“At first, you feel like you have a million different options. That makes it really hard to settle on one person,” Emba said. “There can always be someone better,”
As Lindsey told me, “There’s the saying, ‘there’s plenty of fish in the sea.’ But it’s like we literally have access to all of those fish.”
Harrison Gifford, 25, told me, “Everyone’s scared to commit because they’re worried that someone better is out there.”
Additionally, dating apps can foster an environment where inappropriate behavior thrives, Emba said, noting that on dating apps, “It’s easier to treat people as more disposable.”
“It’s easier for people to treat people badly because there are so many others out there and there are really no social repercussions,” she said.
One person told me that, because she’s Jewish, she received multiple racist messages while on Hinge, including a racial slur. Not only were people inappropriate, but she had been stood up not once, but six times.
How do most Gen Z couples meet?
Many young adults told me they just aren’t meeting new people out in the world. Those who have already graduated from college mostly socialize with their friends. And when they do go out among strangers — at bars, parties, etc. — they typically don’t talk to people they don’t know.
This tracks with recent research. According to “From Swiping to Sexting,” a study by the Survey Center on American Life, one of the main reasons Americans give for why they aren’t dating is difficulty meeting people.
For most of Gen Z, dating apps are really the only way to meet new people. As Josi and Quayde Garfield, a married couple who met on Hinge, told me, they would’ve never met if they hadn’t had gotten on Hinge. The same could be said for many of their married or coupled friends that met via dating apps: Their paths wouldn’t have crossed otherwise.
This is all a stark difference from generations before them. As Emba told me, “10 years ago, 15 years ago, you meet people to through your workplace, but primarily through family and friends or maybe your church.”
Are the dating lives of Gen Z completely hopeless?
Say what you will about Gen Z — that they’re anxious, afraid of commitment, glued to their phones — but they’re remarkably self-aware.
Whenever I gently prodded my interviewees, pointing out the holes in their dating logic, they admitted it doesn’t really make sense. It is that self-awareness, I think, that will help them reform their dating lives.
Additionally, a few of the people I interviewed told me that they don’t use dating apps at all and are meeting people just fine. Blaise, particularly, struck me as impressively bold. She told me that she had no problem going up to guys in public. Porter approaches potential partners, too.
Still, I worry that Gen Z is so fixated on non-commitment that they won’t work on their commitment muscles. Emba said commitment is like any other skill. You have to practice.
Emba thinks that things can change, but acknowledged that the dating scene is “bleak.”
“It’s hard to be optimistic about it,” she told me. “It’s hard for one person to change the dating scene, but if a lot of people begin to change, like how a lot of people moved to dating apps, maybe the reverse will happen.”
Her tip? “Go outside. Touch some grass. By which I mean, try out a romantic life that isn’t app-dependent. It is a challenge, but it is actually still possible to talk to people in public, in real life,” she said.
“Try to exist in the real world. That feels much healthier.”