November 7, 2022 - 1:45pm

Why does anyone go on a date? According to a recent survey nearly a quarter of American millennials find it so important that they’re willing to go into debt in the process, which suggests there’s some reason behind it. 

But why? The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman characterised the contemporary world as one of liquid modernity’, a generalised state of impermanence, fluidity and fragility in which nothing could ever be taken for granted. And while it’s not so many decades since ‘courting’ was widely understood as a relatively short stage that preceded marriage and permanent partnership, now liquid modernity appears to encompass even couple relationships.

Today, friends who are single report that there are no longer any clear conventions governing the purpose of dating, or when (and even if) permanence or exclusivity are on the cards. This may be anecdotal, but innumerable anxious articles in women’s magazines suggest this experience is widespread.

This general state of impermanence seems to extend, for younger generations, even past the point of moving in together. Where for Gen Xers cohabiting was broadly understood as a kind of ‘trial marriage’, this doesn’t seem to hold for those even slightly younger. A quarter of cohabiting couples born in the 1970s separated within two years of moving in together, according to one study. For the youngest cohort studied — those born between 1985 and 1990 — the separation rate shot up to 43%.

This may in part reflect the cost of housing, which doubtless incentivises some couples to move in together relatively quickly, without making long-term assumptions. But this surely doesn’t account for how much less stable couple relationships seem to have become. 

Something is very wrong here. The social ritual of ‘dating’ only makes sense as a period of costly signalling where putative couples go to extra effort to appear at their best, as a precursor to the more mundane business of building a life (and, implicitly, a family) together. Without that telos, it’s mere empty consumerism. This means that a quarter of young people are routinely going into debt for something that used to be a temporarily costly precursor to family formation. Now, it is a potentially never-ending drain on funds without any prospect of moving beyond that stage to more long-term thinking.

Liquid modernity is great for markets and GDP, then. But this has now reached so far into our intimate lives that it’s actively parasitic on our capacity to form the bonds that enable anyone to make long-term plans. In the context of raising the next generation, a commitment as extended as it is existentially necessary for our continuation as a species, this is an obvious problem. No wonder, then, that today over half of millennials remain unmarried, while nearly half are happy with the prospect of never having kids. 

It’s impossible, of course, to say whether these are the same millennials going into debt to impress a potential partner. But it’s clear enough that, contra the free-market ideologues, there are contexts in which markets aren’t a mere neutral facilitator of human needs, or at least not if you include stability, belonging, and the obvious need to propagate the species among those needs. Far from it: where wellbeing is premised on being able to build, the liquefying effect of markets is now the enemy of human flourishing.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.