Risk-Aversion Is Killing Romance
The most dangerous life is one that demands nothing of you
New research shows that Gen Z are more risk-averse than previous generations. Apparently we perceive more dangers in life, are more likely to see situations as “black and white”, and see spaces as either safe or dangerous.
Of course this isn’t surprising. I get tired of the whole snowflake trope being tacked onto everyone in Gen Z, but it’s also difficult to deny that we’re generally much more fearful than previous generations. Much of the attention on this goes to those calling for trigger warnings and safe spaces—which I’d say are an important but very vocal minority—but what’s actually endemic, something I see constantly among my generation, is a subtler form of safetyism, a reluctance to take risks in our everyday lives. Being terrified to talk on the phone. Being scared to order in a restaurant. And somewhere I think it’s really starting to affect us is being risk-averse about relationships.
Gen Z are dating less. Having less sex. Settling for situationships that are empty and meaningless. And I think a major part of this is that human connection comes with a high level of risk. Among young men, for example, I’d say this risk-aversion is most obvious in fear of rejection. A recent survey found that almost 45% of men aged 18 to 25 have never approached a woman in person. Another Pew Survey found that half of single men between 18 and 30 are voluntarily single, which some suggest is in part because of fear.
But I think young women are also risk-averse about relationships. We are naturally more risk-averse, for a start, and an even higher number of women are voluntarily single. But our risk-aversion plays out differently. Most obvious to me is the way we talk about relationships, the advice young women give each other, the therapy-speak and feminist clichés that I think often cloak a deep fear of hurt and vulnerability. Like this tweet I saw recently:
Honestly, this kind of thing is everywhere. Social media is full of young women warning each other and listing out red flags and reasons why you should dump him or dodge commitment. He compliments you a lot? Love-bombing. Says I miss you too soon? Run. Approaches you in person? Predator. It’s all so cynical. It’s all about how not to catch feelings; ways not to get attached; how “you’re not gonna get hurt if you have another man waiting”! We blunt romance and passion with this constant calculation of risk, this paranoid scanning for threats, and by holding back to avoid being hurt. We encourage each other to be emotionally absent, unfazed, uncaring. We even call it empowerment! It’s not. It’s neuroticism. I think we are a generation absolutely terrified of getting hurt and doing all we can to avoid it.
But I get it. There are reasons for our risk-aversion. Jonathan Haidt is right when he talks about the sudden switch from play-based to phone-based childhoods and how it destroyed mental health—particularly for young girls. Our childhoods weren’t spent toying with risk and danger, teaching ourselves we could cope with it, learning that it’s baked into life. We had bans on play fighting. Health and safety obsessions. Rules and regulations. Simulations of play on screens. It was hammered into us that the ultimate goal in life is comfort and safety, and anything that comes with risk is a threat. It’s hard to rewire that.
Then, of course, there’s social media, dating apps—these mechanical ways we meet and find love. Fake spaces where we can avoid any form of discomfort. Where we swipe through people like products instead of approaching them with a pounding heart; where we ghost and block instead of learning how to have difficult conversations; where we start relationships without real risk, without intense chemistry, with no feeling at all. Now we get together not from passion or thrill but after analysing profiles, reviewing selfies, rehearsing DMs. It’s all so safe; it’s all so calculated.
My other suspicion is that this has to do with changing cultural and sexual mores. Family breakdown, for example. In the UK, a third of Gen Z now see their parents split by the time they are 16. Try not being risk-averse when those are your templates for love. Also, too, the sexual revolution, where the liberalising of sexual norms have made dating extremely confusing. Where casual sex has become the default, where we’ve lost the guardrails of custom and chivalry, and nobody wants to put themselves on the line. Sometimes it seems to me we’ve become so suspicious of each other’s intentions that we pathologise romance and commitment, and end up psychoanalysing to death behaviour that’s actually decent. Now we take everything that comes with real love—being affected by someone else’s emotions, putting your partner’s needs first, depending on them—and call it damage or anxious attachment or trauma. No! It’s called deep connection! And God, yes, wouldn’t it be much easier if it was a pathology, a disease, one we could diagnose and solve because it’s scary and it comes without guarantees. But it isn’t.
It’s tragic, all of this. Tragic because it’s putting us on a trajectory to miss out on what’s actually meaningful. There’s no love without vulnerability. There’s no life without fear. And you will no doubt derail romance if you are too risk-averse. I’ve written elsewhere about how I think this fear of discomfort is in part why young people are putting off major life decisions like marriage and having children. What’s interesting to me about all these #childfree TikToks everyone likes to dunk on isn’t that people don’t want kids—I don’t think everyone should—it’s that they often don’t want them out of fear. Like that TikToker who created “The List”—a crowdsourced list of reasons not to have children that’s been seen by millions—which includes every possible risk from swollen ankles to rashes to bloating to muscle cramps. Really? We’re willing to miss out on the richest and most beautiful moments of being human—what actually makes life worth living—because it comes with risk?
I could put a caveat here and say of course, be cautious of these relationships, be wary in these situations, etc, etc, but I won’t. Because that’s all we ever hear. So I’ll just say stop being so cautious. Stop overanalysing it. Don’t sit inside dwelling on what could go wrong. Don’t psychoanalyse everything to the point you deaden something real. You’ve been duped into thinking you can create a life without danger, one liberated from constraints and uncomfortable emotions, and that such a life is desirable. But you can’t, and it’s not. If you connect with someone and it comes with the risk of losing something, good. You’re alive!
Otherwise what’s the alternative? Some soulless life of safety and consumption? Purging your own life of meaning because things might possibly go wrong? Sitting safely inside staring at screens, watching simulations of strangers live their lives? And staying anxious and alone and never seeing that as the ultimate risk? Never seeing that maybe the most dangerous life is one that demands nothing of you?
Screw that! Take a chance! Trust someone! Fall in love! Feel something! Build something meaningful and scary and try your best not to blow it up. Because looking at how many of us feel anxious, depressed, hopeless, nihilistic, fragile and alone, the last thing this generation needs is to take less risks. The last thing we need is another reason to kill off connection. What we need is to create lives for ourselves that threaten us with their terrifying potential for pain and rejection and hurt. Because that’s living. It’s scary; it really is. But we should risk it.
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