Millennials and the Ruins of Romance

Over the past few years, there have been a number of articles about hook-up culture and its ruination of romance. Millennial commentary platforms like Elite Daily have said that “‘charming’ [has given] way to ‘convenience,’” and that young people are not willing to put in the work to sustain relationships anymore because “commitment has declined in exchange for ‘hook ups’” due to unique millennial laziness and egocentrism. In 2013, the New York Times ruminated on whether hook-up culture was the end of courting: “the new date is ‘hanging out,’” and while this may be suitable for college students, “the problem is that ‘young people today don’t know how to get out of hook-up culture.’”

At the heart of these criticisms is the idea that the instant gratification of meeting, often with the sole intention of fucking or establishing a sex-centric relationship, has come to outweigh the love labour gratification of establishing and sustaining a romantic relationship. In short, the swipe right phenomenon has dulled our capacity to recognize the best and most affirming parts of romantic interactions, and the Internet Generation is all the worse for it.

While these critiques are a reflection of a particular temporal and technological moment, there is not anything particularly distinct about hook-up culture with regards to our collective societal understandings of bodies and relationships. The relationships created by this so-called culture, whether they last for years or months or even a single night, are not fundamentally different from the necessarily transactional nature of romantic and sexual relationships that take place within capitalism.

The couple—historically heterosexual, but with contemporary post-marriage equality exceptions—is an important market. It is a site of both affection and consumption that is regulated and sustained by cultures and communities, as well as dominant systems more widely. Given the importance of this unit, we are bombarded with messaging that affirms us for being in partnerships and implicitly chastises us for not yet finding a partner. All you need is love, or something like that. So hurry up and go find it!

The seemingly infinite choices of romantic partners available on apps like Tinder, OKCupid, Grindr, and others demonstrates a perceived surplus of human capital and the sheer disposability of humanity and identity-devoid human bodies as capital. The dating and hook-up services that drive these cultural relationship formations co-construct the common narrative of looking for and being able to find a partner and of options not being limited (no coincidence that one such service is literally called Plenty of Fish), while still taking place within a larger framework of capitalistic romance that pushes the urgent narrative of finding “the one”.

This is not a pressure from which millennials are suddenly exempt. Further, it is the intersection of late capitalism’s sale of romance and the Big Data-driven information economy that collects personal information and constructs algorithms in order to best sell you a perfect partner: love and lovers become literal commodity. Developers and app companies have no investment in people finding matches regardless of how much services are dressed up as “feminism” à la Bumble. Companies, rather, are dipping tendrils into the dating game for pure profit, and they are capitalizing on a market chock-full of bored, lonely, horny, amused, desperate millennials to make their millions.

But what marks this particular social-emotional moment as unique? What makes hook-up culture and this questionably accurate narrative of millennial promiscuity so different from the free love social movement of ’60s and ’70s counterculture? Is it not duly a moment of sexual agency? Is it a uniquely bad moment, or is it a different form of “sexual revolution,” mediated, this time, through technology?

Perhaps it isn’t this youth culture that has destroyed conceptions of relationships, romance, and love. Perhaps, rather, all of these things are being actualized and embodied differently, in often deliberate reactions to capitalist ways of understanding and knowing the evolving life trajectories, family units, and conceptions of love—a constant or evolving one—that we have been socialized into throughout generations.

Maybe a hook-up culture that is framed as divergent from and a murderer of traditional romance is simply articulating a different iteration of “finding the one,” a central component of the scarcity-driven model of love and romance within capitalism. These false perceptions of scarcity drive the accumulation of capital (i.e. partners) for accumulation and ownership’s sake.

You might think this idea of love’s scarcity would be a good thing: that because so little of what we understand as “true love” exists, we might be more prone to savour and appreciate it. But scarcity in love mirrors the scarcity of capitalism: we become greedy and obsessed with “our” thing, relationships often revolve around insecurity, possessiveness, and fear that we might lose “our” person. This sets off our so-called “biological-sociological impulse” to fight for our partner: we become pitted against other potential prospectives in a competition to keep our mates.

Socialization into this hegemonic idea of romance is one means of socialization into capitalism itself. An integral part of dominant amatonormative romance, is a gender essentialist way of knowing oneself in relation to a prospective lover.

Within these [hetero]normativities, we internalize and perform scripts dictating the “best” ways to attract and keep a partner. Bodies are slotted into a tireless cat and mouse game of partner-as-accessory, where the ability to find partnership ultimately defines our value and worthiness of affirmation: “partner capital,” if you will. This “partner-capital” is scrutinized and regulated heavily by patriarchal systems and determined through a number of semi-arbitrary markers, such as outward-facing sexual purity or domestic prowess or the ability to financially provide. Because these dynamics largely dictate the worth of individuals whose genders must bear vulnerability to maintain patriarchy’s security, there is unequal gendered pressure in maintaining romantic relationships.

One example of this hoarding and accumulation within dominant constructions of romance is the idea of “forever” as a validating and legitimizing marker of the worth of our relationships. Within this “forever” trajectory, those perceived as adopting a more typically feminine or submissive role (because this critique is both implicitly and explicitly gendered) are perceived as lesser for their role in failed marriages, for their “inability” to properly maintain a relatively masculine or dominant partner. This is not the sole domain of heterosexual couplings: queer normativities often follow similar suit. Subsequent marriages or serious relationships are taken less seriously because the institution of marriage is “cheapened” by divorce.

The fact that I and other millennials can secure a dinner date or a one-night stand using never before available technologies has not led and is not leading to the destruction of romance. Romance—as dictated by dominant ideas and driven by the desires to peddle consumer goods like household appliances on carefully constructed family units—is an impossible-to-redeem mode of understanding love and intimacy and human interaction taught to us by capitalism.

We generally want to feel lovable, desirable, worthy, and seen, and we are taught that our ability to be any of these things comes, most importantly, from romantic partners. So why wouldn’t young people, in a period of increasingly relentless demands made by late capitalism, use the resources they have at their disposal to feel these intimacies and desirabilities as frequently as possible?

Although this generation has made the best of navigating the shitty world that previous generations have left us to inherit, there remains an exceptional badness inherent to “millennial culture.” How, then, will we reclaim or reject romance?