Hustle Mindset

Why is Gen Z Weird About Relationship Age Gaps?


Is a five-year age gap in a relationship a little untoward? What about a three-year gap?

On social media, Gen Zers ― at least those who are chronically online ― are constantly debating the ethics of age gaps. Even if some relationships are perfectly legal, that doesn’t necessarily make them ethical, many say.

It’s little wonder then that age-disparate relationships are cause for so much conversation: Having grown up alongside the #MeToo movement, Generation Z is well versed in unbalanced power dynamics and the language of consent. And lately, there’s been plenty of celebrity pairings to interrogate.

There’s the obviously icky examples, like the recent, short-lived romance between Aoki Lee Simmons — Russell and Kimora Lee Simmons’ 21-year-old daughter — and restaurateur Vittorio Assaf, 65. Earlier this month, viral photos showed the pair flouncing around on vacation in St. Barts.

Yes, they’re both consenting adults, but it was still unseemly, critics said. If anything, the argument that they’re both of age is “something groomers cling to,” as one young woman on Threads put it.

“Adulthood was meant to signify voting/draft age,” she wrote. “But everyone knows your prefrontal cortex is not fully formed at this age.” (This difference between so-called brain age and chronological age ― you might be 21 but your brain is undeveloped! ― often gets brought up in these kinds of conversations.)

“To some in Gen Z, age-gap relationships read as being inherently exploitative.”

– Justin Lehmiller, a research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute and host of the “Sex and Psychology Podcast.”

There are gender-swapped examples too, like actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, a now-married couple who met while working on a 2009 John Lennon biopic called “Nowhere Boy.” At the time, he was in his late teens and she was a mother of two in her early 40s.

“I didn’t relate to anyone my age,” the actor told The Telegraph in 2019, reflecting on when they first met. “I just feel that we’re on the same wavelength.”

Some fans aren’t convinced. “We def aren’t talking about male grooming victims enough and this is literally proof,” one person wrote in a highly shared TikTok video about their coupling.

Then there’s the less expected critiques: Is four years too much of an age gap? “At 25, I wouldn’t even date a 21 year old,” reads one tweet with around 80,000 likes.

What about 10 years? Fans of Billie Eilish were up in arms in 2022 when the then-20-year-old singer revealed that she was dating fellow musician Jesse Rutherford, who was in his early 30s. One viral tweet about the 10-year age gap reads: “jesse rutherford was alive during george h w bush’s presidency . billie eilish cannot legally drink.”

Long-established relationships aren’t safe, either. Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s 11-year gap has been scrutinized. And recently, Beyhive members have begun debating whether Beyoncé was “groomed” because she was 19 when she started dating Jay-Z, who was in his early 30s.

Noncelebrity couples are getting called out, too. “I was 19. My now husband was 27. My now 13yo child calls him my ‘predator,’” one woman wrote on Threads alongside laughing emoji, probably only half-joking.

Why Gen Z Seems To Have Such An Aversion To Age Gaps

Is Gen Z just more prudish on this subject than prior generations?

Not necessarily, said Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and the host of the “Sex and Psychology Podcast.” He’s been studying age-gap relationships for roughly 20 years and said the stigma around age-disparate relationships is long-standing.

In 2008 ― when terms like “cradle robber” and “cougar” were bandied around a lot more than they are now ― Lehmiller co-authored a study that found age-discrepant couples reported experiencing significantly more social disapproval than people in gay or interracial couples.

Westend61 via Getty Images

A 2008 study found that age-discrepant couples reported experiencing significantly more social disapproval than even gay and interracial couples.

So the discomfort around these types of relationships isn’t anything new. What is new, according to Lehmiller, is how comfortable Gen Z feels about publicly and vocally disapproving of these relationships ― even on people’s personal Instagram pages. (Aaron and Sam Taylor-Johnson recently spoke out against the “bizarre” online judgment they’ve received. Eilish and Rutherford brushed off the criticism from overly concerned fans by dressing up as a baby and an old man one Halloween.)

“To some in Gen Z, age-gap relationships read as being inherently exploitative because they perceive age discrepancies as necessarily creating a power imbalance that favors the older partner,” Lehmiller told HuffPost.

What’s also changed is which parties tend to receive the brunt of the judgment. In the past, people were often scornful of both the younger and older partners in these relationships. Historically, the younger partners, especially when they were women, endured labels like “gold digger” ― with the implication that they were the ones doing the exploiting. That terminology doesn’t always fly with Gen Z.

“That perception seems to have largely disappeared when you look at what Gen Z is saying,” Lehmiller noted. “They seem to cast the younger partners as victims who are being preyed upon or ‘groomed.’”

Gigi Engle, a certified sex and relationship psychotherapist and resident intimacy expert for dating app 3Fun, worries that the term “grooming” is being overapplied and losing its meaning.

“The narrative is really toxic here and in many other cases,” she told HuffPost. “Trans people are groomers, gay people are groomers, older people dating younger people are groomers ― and this just isn’t accurate. It’s a really fear-mongering time we live in.”

Gen Z may be hyperfocused on this because of their age: If you’re a 35-year-old woman, you’re probably less hung up on the idea of a 50-year-old guy expressing interest in you.

“I think younger people may be more susceptible to manipulation and are therefore more afraid of it,” Engle said. “The reality is, age-gap relationships have been happening since humans have existed, and it is absolutely not some one-size-fits-all. In the vast majority of relationships like this, nothing untoward is happening.”

Here’s What Gen Z Has To Say About Age Gaps

Talking to actual Gen Zers, you’ll find that their opinions on age gaps run the gamut. As with most things, their takes on the subject are much more nuanced than those found on X, the platform previously known as Twitter, would have you believe.

That said, many are genuinely bothered by age gaps. While the #MeToo movement gave them the language to talk about power imbalances, some 20-somethings say their opinions are more colored by their own personal experiences.

Layla — a 23-year-old who asked to use her first name only for privacy reasons, like others in this story — thinks it’s better to date within your own age group, ideally within a two- or three-year range.

“When I was around 21 and 22, I tried talking to guys who were 30 and over but soon realized it wasn’t right,” she told HuffPot. “They had so much more life experiences than me, and it was awkward being from different generations.”

Some fans question the beginnings of Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's relationship. The pair met on the set of the movie "Nowhere Boy" when she was in her early 40s and he was in his late teens.

Dave Benett via Getty Images

Some fans question the beginnings of Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s relationship. The pair met on the set of the movie “Nowhere Boy” when she was in her early 40s and he was in his late teens.

Layla said she’d tried to joke and laugh about certain things ― a meme or a TikTok video ― and got a lot of blank stares. She wasn’t a fan of their humor, either: A date recounting the umpteenth “Seinfeld” episode or that one “Step Brothers” scene gets a little old after a while.

“Trying to relate to one another just didn’t work out, and it felt awkward and wrong,” she said.

“I believe a relationship between an 18- and 25-year-old is problematic,” Layla said, noting that this applies regardless of gender.

“I actually wish women got called out for their predatory behavior, too,” she said. “It almost seems like no one wants to hold women accountable.”

Mona, a 21-year-old college student in Georgia, even finds her own parents’ 11-year age gap a little “predatory”: Her dad was in his late 30s and a divorced father of one when he met her mom, who was in her late 20s and didn’t have children.

Mona would date someone three years older. She wouldn’t consider going younger, though. “I do think that an 18- and 25-year-old together is unacceptable,” she said.

She is particularly weirded out when she hears people talk about how their partner basically raised them or taught them “how to be a woman,” as Beyoncé said to Jay-Z in a 2006 birthday toast that went viral recently.

Mona is also wary of anyone who almost exclusively dates young people ― the Leonardo DiCaprios of the world. Every time the 49-year-old actor gets a new girlfriend, a graph highlighting the fact that each of his ex-girlfriends has been 25 or under starts circulating again.

“Any respectable adult would have the common sense that pursuing a teenager is extremely weird, and I also believe it says a lot about the headspace of the older person,” the 21-year-old said.

Mona also thinks the COVID-19 pandemic might’ve been a factor in Gen Zers’ apprehension over age gaps. They might technically be 21, but given that weird few-year pause, they don’t feel it.

“You hear about how we’re mentally the same age that we were when the pandemic first started,” she said. “That might play a role in why some people are not settling on older people pursuing them ― you feel you’re still too young.”

Not everyone agrees. Rei, a 22-year-old who is queer, said they don’t find age-disparate relationships inherently problematic. They said there’s a lot more than age that gives people power over each other, and if you consider five years an “age-gap relationship” then Rei is currently in one.

“Though my partner is older than me, I have a college degree and she doesn’t,” they said. “So arguably I have a better financial and career outlook that would make me the ‘abusive one,’ if you’re using that language.”

Age gaps may be more common in the queer community, Rei said. “I don’t know a gay guy who hasn’t been with someone much older than him,” they said. “It’s just normal to us.”

Problematic dynamics can exist no matter the age. “People now don’t know what grooming is and just use the term as synonymous with age gaps,” Rei said.

To some extent, Rei sees the hubbub over age gaps as an overcorrection of the mores ushered in by the #MeToo movement.

“People overadjust and assume that any relationship out of the norm is abusive,” they said. “In my experience, people who feel age gaps are problematic are also the same people who argue the internet is harmful and should be censored because they had a bad experience as a kid. Your experience isn’t universal.”

Problematic dynamics can exist no matter the age, said Rei, 22. "People now don't know what grooming is and just use the term as synonymous with age gaps," they said.

MementoJpeg via Getty Images

Problematic dynamics can exist no matter the age, said Rei, 22. “People now don’t know what grooming is and just use the term as synonymous with age gaps,” they said.

For Amelia, 24, actual age matters less than the stage of life you’re in. She figures if you’re a relatively accomplished 28-year-old dating an accomplished 40-year-old, what’s the big deal? The word “grooming” really only applies when an adult is introduced to a future partner when they’re underage, Amelia said.

She cited the relationship between Dane Cook and his wife as an “egregious” example of a questionable age gap. (The now-52-year-old comedian met Kelsi Taylor at a game night he hosted when she was in her late teens.)

“Do I think it’s possible for people like that to have a healthy and happy relationship? Sure,” Amelia said. “But the older I get, my desire to talk to high schoolers grows slimmer and slimmer. I really can’t put myself in the shoes of someone who would want to befriend a high schooler.”

That said, Amelia thinks that some Gen Zers take their judgment too far. To her, the concern over age gaps seems like a weirdly “paternalistic” brand of feminism, where women feel the need to protect women from men.

“It’s similar to how Swifties treat Taylor Swift,” she said, referring to the now-34-year-old pop star.

“You have young women ‘looking out for’ a billionaire woman in her 30s. I’m a fan of Taylor Swift, but I don’t think she needs protecting from Travis Kelce because Travis Kelce got in the face of his NFL coach during the Super Bowl.”

“Believe it or not, we often see more ― not less ― equity in these relationships.”

– Justin Lehmiller

The anti-age-gap sentiment held by many plays into the “puriteen” narrative that’s been inescapable lately. Online, there’s a lot of hand-wringing over Gen Zers’ seeming aversion to sex: Studies show that they’re having less of it than earlier generations and that they don’t want sex scenes in their movies.

Though Amelia overall disagrees with age-gap critics ― she feels like their arguments rob women of their agency, she said ― she gets where those in her peer group are coming from.

“The majority of us had unsupervised internet access from a young age. We were in chatrooms, on Tumblr, and other various corners of the internet that we probably should not have been on at that age,” she said. “It was easy for grown men on the internet to reach us if they wanted to.”

If you’ve been oversexualized at a young age ― or seen others in your age bracket be oversexualized ― that experience is understandably going to shape how you perceive these kinds of things, Amelia said.

But the reality is, there are likely just as many happy May-December unions as there are disappointing ones. “Believe it or not, we often see more ― not less ― equity in these relationships,” Lehmiller noted.

All of the Gen Zers we spoke to said that ultimately, two consenting adults can do whatever they want in their private lives, even if others find it off-putting.

“Men can like women that are younger and not be a creep,” Amelia said. “He also can be a creep, but some random person with a Twitter cartoon avatar shouldn’t necessarily be the judge of that!”

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