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What's causing the growing political gap between Gen Z men and women?

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

What’s happening

One of the enduring truths of American politics is that women tend to be more liberal than men. A majority of women have supported the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1996. In all but one of those races, men backed the Republican.

While it may be no surprise that a similar political divide exists with Gen Z, recent surveys suggest the ideological gap between young men and women is wider and diverging more rapidly than what’s been seen in previous generations. According to one poll, 42% of women between 18 and 29 identify as liberal, whereas only 25% of men do. That’s a much bigger difference than in older cohorts. Meanwhile, this trend seems to be happening around the world, and is even more pronounced in some other countries.

As more and more members of Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) reach voting age, this divide among young voters could make the partisan gender gap — already one of the most important factors in U.S. elections — even more decisive. Some experts also fear that splintered political views could have a negative effect on marriage and relationships, since it may become increasingly difficult for young heterosexuals to find a partner who shares their worldview.

Why there’s debate

The underlying dynamic behind the growing Gen Z gender gap is simple. Young women have become substantially more liberal as a group over the past several years, whereas views held by young men have mostly remained the same. But the forces that have led to such divergent paths are more complicated.

Most experts agree that the rapid swing to the left among young women is tied to a series of major political events that had an especially strong impact on members of their gender, including the election of Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement and the Supreme Court decision overturning abortion protections established by Roe v. Wade. Each of these events, experts argue, made political debates over gender issues much more personal and motivating for women than they did for men.

The massive national movement against sexual harassment and abuse inspired by #MeToo appears to have had an especially complex effect on young men. Undoubtedly some of them have responded by aligning behind liberal positions on women’s rights, but there has also been a backlash that inspired others to shift strongly to the right on the issue — and in some cases outright misogyny. But some researchers argue that young mens’ views haven’t evolved because so many of them feel uncertain about what they should believe, or even who they should be, in a culture where gender norms are changing so rapidly.

What’s next

An estimated 41 million members of Gen Z will be eligible to vote in this year’s presidential election, including 8 million who will be able to participate in a federal election for the first time. While the the generation as a whole leans strongly in favor of Democrats, their influence on the race could be dampened if large numbers of young voters opt not to vote because they’re dissatisfied with President Biden’s performance.

In the longer term, some experts fear that the partisan gender divide may make Gen Z far less likely to marry and have children than previous generations, which they say could seriously hinder both their own happiness and the overall stability of American society.

Perspectives

Divisions over #MeToo have spread to all sorts of political issues

“The clear progressive-vs-conservative divide on sexual harassment appears to have caused — or at least is part of — a broader realignment of young men and women into liberal and conservative camps respectively on other issues.” — John Burn-Murdoch, Financial Times

Republicans are driving women away en masse

“The reason for this leftward shift is conservative policy—they are turning away from the party that wants to take their fundamental freedoms away from them. Calling single women ‘woke’ for doing so is simply an attempt to pathologize a rational choice.” — Adam Serwer, The Atlantic

So many young men feel that they don’t belong in either party

“There is certainly a lot to be said about how young men are drifting to the right. ... But I am not sure that [the data] tells that story. Rather it seems to show how young men feel alienated from both sides of the political aisle.” — Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian

Both sides feel like they’re under attack

“It increasingly feels like Gen Z men and women are living on different planets, each guided by the belief that they are navigating uniquely hostile terrain — and understanding why is crucial to bridging the gap.” — Daniel Cox, Business Insider

Young men feel rejected by the modern liberal movement

“Most young men are probably not interested in making America great again, but they do feel acutely the need to secure a place for themselves in a culture that readily identifies male advantage but ignores the challenges young men face.” — Carmel Richardson, American Conservative

#MeToo inspired a backlash that has pushed some young men far to the right

“Confused about how to be in the world, many boys and men are turning backward toward harmful characterizations of gender instead of working through the changes and complications necessary to build healthier manhood. Holding gender conservative attitudes provides a bridge between otherwise ideologically separate communities and primes people for extremism.” — Soraya Chemaly, MSNBC

Many women are avoiding life events that tend to make people more conservative

“Putting off marriage, going to college, entering the workforce, women are doing that at much higher rates than they used to. And all of those things are going to make conservatism and the Republicans significantly less attractive to women.” — Marc Hetherington, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to The Hill

The divide doesn’t matter as much as the overall trend that all young people are moving left

“Focusing on the gap between the positions of men and women seems to ignore the bigger picture: Both young men and young women started from positions that were already more progressive than any other age group.” — Mark Sumner, Daily Kos