The Youth Lab


“Karma is the guy on the Chiefs, coming straight home to me.” - Taylor Swift

The Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce media frenzy may have us all believing that Gen Z are in a BIG romance mood. But, of course, youth culture around relationships today is unique and multifaceted. This week’s 52INSIGHTS explores youth relationships, loneliness, gender divides and love languages ahead of Saint Valentine’s Day.


Research reveals that young people today are more focussed on a healthy relationship to themselves and platonic friendships, than they are on romance and sex. We wrote about the popularisation of the term ‘self-partnered’ back in 2020. In 2022, Dazed Media reported that 27% of Gen Z said their relationship to themselves was the most important one at this point in their life, which comes in higher than with parents (21%), friends (13%) or significant others (22%). This coincides with a Lovehoney Study in 2021 that found that while rates of sexual activity have been in decline for years, the drop is most pronounced for adults under age 25. Another 2021 study reported that 30% of teens (grades 9–12 in the US) said they’d had sex at least once before, down from 38% in 2019 and over 50% in decades prior - the largest drop EVER recorded by the survey (which has been conducted every two years since 1990).

The majority of people also feel formal sex education has failed them. Sex education influencers like Jenny Keane are responding to these challenges and ‘self love’ trends, creating online and IRL workshops that are helping younger generations take sex education into their own hands. The Guardian has since reported that Gen Z want to see stories that reflect this shift (‘less sex more self’) - “Of topics gen Z wanted to see, the top preferences were hopeful, uplifting content with people beating the odds, and characters with lives “more like their own” – which, reportedly, means less romance, and more platonic relationships.” Of course there’s still loads to be said on youth trends around sex and porn - for more read our previous editions on the popularity of ‘Sex Education’ on Netflix, and this one on breaking body stigmas (there’s plenty being written on youth takes on ethical, sex positive feminism & feminist porn).


“On a Friday night, I’ll go on Instagram. I follow quite a lot of people who will be out doing stuff with friends and posting. And I’ll feel like: ‘Oh, I’m on my own. Why am I on my own?”. Kate, 26, The Guardian

The World Health Organization has launched an international commission to combat loneliness, which can be as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day*. A new global survey, taken across 142 countries, found that almost 1 in 4 (24%) people aged 15 and older felt very or fairly lonely. And yes, there’s a generational gap. Rates of loneliness are highest in young adults, with 27% of those aged 19 to 29 reporting feeling very or fairly lonely, significantly higher than those aged 65 and older, where 17% felt very or fairly lonely. Loneliness can have a massive impact on people’s health. It impacts our mental and physical health and our longevity. These are long term trends among younger generations - The Loneliness Experiment by the BBC in 2015 shows the trend of young people feeling lonelier started even before COVID-19. Trends emerging now show concern for how the pandemic aggravated young people’s loneliness, resulting in stunted social skills. Digital bubbles continue to aggravate this, and the long term trajectory currently is one of continued decline as young people meet up less and less IRL.

Judy Wong of The Lonely Gal podcast, shared: “My intention for the podcast was to simply help other people feel less alone. I am a social person but I can also be a bit of a hermit, so I have experienced loneliness on many occasions, however loneliness is defined differently to us all. Some of us require professional help, others need a friend, or someone to just listen to them. Validate their feelings. I think the podcast validates those feelings, it's a companion to people and creates connection amongst the loneliness.


Despite Gen Z’s fluid takes on gender and generally shifting values on identity and sexuality, a unique new youth ‘global gender divide’ was reported recently in the Financial Times. This also may account for some of the disconnect trends in youth relationships. Views are rapidly diverging, with young women being more progressive and young men becoming surprisingly conservative: “In the US…women aged 18 to 30 are now 30 percentage points more liberal than their male contemporaries. That gap took just six years to open up…in the UK the gap is 25 points.” John Burn-Murdoch, Financial Times.

There are many reasons why this is happening, from the rise of movements like #MeToo to outrage-loving social media algorithms. Some believe the split has been happening because the genders are hanging out socially much less. As ideology gaps grow, we can expect to see the implications reflected across culture and creative work. Interested in exploring this more? Listen here.


Of course there is still a lot of fun being had when it comes to how youth are testing romantic relationships when they form. For instance, asking questions like ‘would you dump someone if they didn’t peel you an orange?’ One of our favourite dating trends right now is ‘Orange Peel Theory’, which says that if your partner peels an orange for you that it should be considered a green flag, and if they refuse, it’s very bad. It sparked thousands of people to film themselves asking/ implying that they’d like their partner to peel an orange for them, and sharing the results on social media - a light-hearted way to test your partner's love and devotion while creating 🔥 content. It's big ‘Acts of Service’ love language energy (which has peppered pop culture for the last 30 years, established in Gary Chapman’s 1992 book).


Modern dating can be tough if you get dumped because you didn’t peel your partners orange… Beyond the relationship ‘test’ culture, youth are upskilling in managing relationships through other creative resources online. Accounts like Beam me up softboi share some of the funniest/wildest and weirdest interactions in modern dating (that most daters will find a little too relatable). Sharing helps shift the heaviness and micro heartbreak that comes with a disappointing date or chat on an app. We’ve also seen the birth of many podcasts from Grace Campbell's hilarious 28 Dates Later to Damien Broderick’s and Nathalie Lennon’s podcast, The Dating Games. Elsewhere, NYC Meet Cutes shares and celebrates real love stories, as does the enduringly popular Modern Love series by the NY Times. Other social accounts like Therapy Jeff follow in the footsteps of Esther Perel, offering people advice (in TikTok style content) on how to best engage in healthy and loving relationships, how to set boundaries, speak to your needs and communicate well with your partner. Relationships are a life-long learning journey!


Help Youth Connect: Youth are hungry for connection, but the data tells us they need help. Snapchat’s latest campaign ‘Less Social, More Snap’ is an example of a brand tapping into this (watch & read). Supporting ‘love edu-tainment’ is one way brands could help - getting behind conversations that are creating real connection. Mark Mehigan, for example, has become Ireland's unlikely Cilla Black, match making his followers, setting up blind dates all around the country. The result has been earnest and sweet moments of real connection (and maybe some babies down the road - who knows?). THINKHOUSE has been working with Benecol to celebrate the ways that social connections in our lives have a real, tangible impact on our health. Laura O’Connell, Brand Manager, Raisio Group shared: “Our new campaign for Benecol ‘That Caring Friend’ is based on the insight that friendships make us happier and healthier. That social connection that comes from friendships brings so much joy and support into our lives. Friends also play an important role in motivating us to take better care of ourselves, go to the doctor, get that test, invest in your own health and sometimes we all need that encouragement.”

What does the gender divide mean for brands? It’s easy to make mistakes, but beware of trying to please / fit in with everyone. Strategist Mark Pollard from Sweathead writes: “It's going to be very easy to make mistakes with advertising…the way you cast your advertising, the music you choose, and the topics featured are going to need more deliberation than ever… [But] you still need to make advertising that gets people's attention. A challenge some of you are living through right now is that, because the world feels like it's dividing, you're being pressured to make invisible advertising.” This op ed also talks about the opportunity to take calculated risks and make ‘more ads like Saltburn.’


THINKHOUSE has appointed Laura Costello as Head of Sustainability and Planet Services. The newly created role is a result of increased client demand for services in sustainability communications and strategy and the agency’s growing roster of private and public sector projects. Click here for more information or email to request more info on our Planet Services.

*Holt-Lunstad J, Robles TF, Sbarra DA. Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States. Am Psychol. 2017;72(6):517-530.