The Internet has changed the way people can get what they want in profound and ever-evolving ways. It started with scientists getting information from each other on the ARPANET. Then came the World Wide Web and everything changed. Now we can get almost anything that ships in a box, digital entertainment like music and movies, places to stay with Airbnb, and Uber rides to wherever we want to go. With online dating sites and mobile dating apps we can even get someone to spend time with after Uber drops us off. It started with a small group of scientists and now it’s . . . who? Who uses online dating services?
The overall trend is clear. Online dating is well-established, it appears to be growing, and it is being used by people of all ages . Collapsing across all age groups, online dating has increased by approximately 36% in only two years. It’s also both clear and unsurprising that millennials (ages 18 to 34) are making more use of online dating services than their parents and grandparents.
A striking feature of this data is how different younger millennials (those aged 18 to 24) are from everyone else. Not only are these young adults most likely to make use of online dating services, their increase in interest in online dating from 2013 to 2015 dwarfs that of all the other groups. Younger millennials are also the only group in the survey that favored mobile apps over online dating sites even though they also used online dating sites more than any other group. The younger millennials preference for mobile apps coincides with data from a different Pew survey that indicates younger millennials are more likely to own a smartphone than any other age group.
Another notable aspect of the data is the rise in interest in online dating among middle-aged and older adults. Use of online dating services increased by almost two-thirds in the 45 to 54 age group. An even greater increase is seen for 56 to 64 year olds whose use of online dating services doubled. Only the younger millennials showed a larger proportional increase. These increases stand in marked contrast to the older millennials (those aged 25 to 34) who look like their grandparents in showing no increase in their use of online dating services over the past two years.
The flat usage data for the older millennials is intriguing. It’s tempting to speculate that people in this age group are less likely to be looking for companionship online because they are more likely to be entering into long-term relationships than those in the other age groups. This idea is supported bydata from the US Census Bureau that indicate the median age for first marriage in the US in 2015 was approximately 28. One might then hypothesize that the rise in use of online dating services after age 34 is the result of marriages between 25 to 34 year-olds that didn’t work out as hoped. This must remain as speculation, however, because Pew did not question their respondents widely or deeply enough to answer these questions.
The lack of depth in the Pew report is its weakest feature. The report provides good answers to some questions but in doing so it gives rise to many more. For example, the survey asked people if they “know someone who uses online dating” and “know someone who has entered a long-term relationship via online dating”. Suppose a pair of 23-year-olds meet through an online dating service and they get married 5 years later. Their younger siblings, members of their age cohort, their parents and their grandparents could all answer “yes” to one or both of the survey questions based on knowing this one couple. In order to have a more accurate picture of how online dating is penetrating different age groups, it would have been useful if these “do you know someone” questions had been phrased as “do you know someone who is close to your age”. It would have also been useful to have asked whether respondents had used an online dating service in the past two years as well as whether they had ever used a mobile dating app or an online dating site.
Thinking about the future of online dating in light of the data reported in the survey suggests an interesting possibility. As noted earlier, it’s clear that millennials are turning to the Internet to find companionship more than previous generations. Several online dating services promote the idea that you are more likely to find a well-matched partner online because you have a wider pool of people to choose from and the service’s analytics filter the pool to find those who best fit your personality. Suppose they are right about this. If that’s the case, we might expect to see millennials enjoying a lower divorce rate and a higher incidence of successful marriages than either their parents or grandparents.