Why are young men and women growing further apart?

In many countries, women are becoming more liberal and younger men more conservative but reconciling these differences can make societies happier

In a world of increasing polarisation, it is unsurprising that research shows that this divide between younger men and women is growing in new and unexpected ways. Courtesy: Orbon Alija
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“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” goes the saying. The commonality of the phrase speaks to a general view that men and women have different experiences and perspectives.

The gender divide – including the struggles and the humour that this divide brings – is not in and of itself a new thing. However, in a world of increasing polarisation, it comes as little surprise that recent research and studies show that in countries on every continent, this divide is growing in new and unexpected ways – beyond the stereotypes, jokes and persistent inequalities. These are likely to affect societies’ cultural fabric as well as relationships, children and politics.

A recent analysis published in the Financial Times compares attitudes between men and women aged between 18 and 29 – described as Gen Z – across the likes of China, South Korea, the UK and the US, among others. It’s built on a Gallup poll in the US, which suggests that younger women are becoming more liberal and younger men are becoming more conservative.

In the past, men and women in many parts of the world generally held similar or overlapping societal and political views. The analysis suggests that this still holds true of older age groups. It is the younger cohort in which the divergence is being noted.

In the past, men and women generally held the same societal and political views

In the US, according to the report, “women aged 18 to 30 are now 30 percentage points more liberal than their male contemporaries”. Germany’s gap is 30 points “between increasingly conservative young men and progressive female contemporaries”, and in the UK the gap is 25 points.

The gap shows up on issues such as immigration and racial justice, where in the US, UK and Germany, young women take more liberal positions than young men, compared to older groups who have little difference in views.

The body of data is growing, and it is certainly borne out in anecdotal, qualitative and social observations. Many are seeking to unpick the numbers, while tackling more conceptual questions such as “what does it mean to be liberal or progressive?”, or “what is meant by feminism?”.

The rise of “incels” – or involuntary celibates – plus the growing popularity of men’s rights activists, the rise of the far right, particularly in the West, and the vast cultish followings of male influencers such as Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson calling for the return of more traditional masculinity are all in front of our eyes.

This is obvious in data around relationships, marriage and fertility rates. Whatever anyone’s views on whether it is men or women who are right or wrong, the result is fewer relationships and fewer marriages in many parts of the world, including the US and UK, where marriage rates have been in decline.

For anyone who takes the view that family is the building block of society, the need for remedial action would seem urgent. This is even more so in the case of having children: fertility rates in several regions around the world are dropping alarmingly. In a number of countries, including South Korea, where there is a gender divide over what the role of women in society should be, the fertility rate is below one, which means the population is in decline.

What is causing the disparity is fascinating. Consider the findings from the American Perspectives Survey in January last year. A little more than half of young, single men (52 per cent) say that they are open to dating compared to just 36 per cent of young, single women. Having more important priorities than dating and finding it hard to meet someone are the two biggest reasons for their single status.

Young singles – men and women alike – complain broadly equally about the challenge of meeting someone (35 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women). But the striking difference is that 45 per cent of single women say that they have different priorities compared to 29 per cent of single men.

And perhaps unlike past generations, fewer women find it necessary to “settle” or marry in order to have financial security or social acceptance. Instead, compared to men, women are far more likely to hold out for someone who meets their expectations: 38 per cent of single women compared to 23 per cent of single men say that being unable to find someone who meets their expectations is a big reason for being single.

The question is what, if anything, should we do? It’s a particularly pressing issue and an obvious answer would be to have better conversations. These would include setting a level of expectation between men and women when it comes to relationships and marriage, along with addressing the reasons why they are delaying matrimony or having children.

But the challenge with having these conversations is almost exactly what is causing the problems in the first place: disparities are setting in at a young age in silos, algorithms and online spaces where there is precious little human interaction. And given that experiences at a young age inform our later lives, this can perhaps only worsen the pre-existing communication divide between men and women.

What we absolutely don’t want to do is find that this gender divide further entrenches the notion that, metaphorically speaking, men and women belong to different planets. After all, as perhaps the older generations realise, reconciling differences can also lead to togetherness and joy.

Published: February 09, 2024, 7:00 AM