Tomorrow the Winter Generations Journal issue, “Sexuality and Aging: Provocative New Perspectives” publishes. Below is a precursor, in a nod to Valentine’s Day, of modern mores around romance.
With Valentine’s Day upon us, Sir Paul McCartney’s lines come to mind:
Will you send me a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
To which I’d add:
“Will you be able to find me online?”
The answer? If you’re 50 and older, maybe. Or maybe not.Ageism is prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination based on age. As director of Changing the Narrative, a U.S.-based anti-ageism campaign, my work has focused on ageism in the workplace, in healthcare and in popular culture, launching initiatives like the Age-friendly Workplace Initiative and an Anti-Ageist Birthday Card campaign.
When ASA asked me to write a blog post on ageism and online dating apps, I was intrigued. Is ageism as rampant in this sphere as it is in others? My conclusion after diving in? Online dating apps both reflect and reinforce the rampant ageism that exists in our culture.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Use of dating apps is growing among older adults.
During the pandemic, there was an overall surge in online dating and use of apps. A survey conducted in the summer of 2021 by Age of Majority’s Revolution 55, a community of active, engaged adults ages 55 and older who provide insights to support innovations and marketing to older adults, found that one in five respondents had used an online dating app. Of those who had not, more than one in four knew of friends or family members who had. AARP’s Modern Guide to Dating After 50 includes an article on dating apps for "over-50 singles," one of many such pieces emerging on online dating apps for older people.
2. Policies and practices within the apps themselves demonstrate institutional, or systemic, ageism.
Examples of institutional bias built into the apps include:
- Differential pricing. Tinder has been sued for charging different fees based on age, with older people being charged more than customers ages 29 and younger.
- Total exclusion. Snack has been sued for not allowing anyone older than age 35 to access the app.
- Imagery. Visiting many of the sites, it becomes evident that they lack images of older people, a not-so-subtle suggestion that they are not welcome.
3. App features reflect and reinforce ageist thinking and gendered ageism.
Most apps require people to set age parameters of those they are seeking to date; some apps (e.g., Match.com) require setting age parameters to enter the site. Those I interviewed suggested that men routinely set parameters to only include those younger than they are. A 2018 study found that on dating apps, women are considered the most desirable at age 18, and men at age 50.
Nancy Shenker, a fractional chief marketing officer and content strategist, has both used dating apps and researched them in her roles in marketing and as a blogger who writes about dating after 50.
She explains, “you only have two options. You can tell the truth and risk being nudged out by the algorithm, or lie and then have to explain later.”
‘Snack has been sued for not allowing anyone older than age 35 to access the app.’
Shenker then pointed out the irony of these age parameters. “I recently met someone in the real world. And he admitted that we never would have met in the online dating world because his parameters were set below my age.”
What about apps geared at older adults?
Digital marketer and web designer Nicole Sankowski started using online apps just before the pandemic. She explained that she can’t help looking at them from her perspective of user design. Her insights? Some of apps focused on an older market lack the sophisticated features of other apps, have clunkier user design, and often feature stereotypical stock photos of older adults.
4. It’s not just the apps. Internalized ageism and gendered ageism affect how we use the apps, and dating overall after age 50.
If we internalize the ageist messages that pervade our culture, it may affect how we use the apps and the results we get. For example, if we are age 60, working, engaged in community and thriving, but hold negative stereotypes about other 60-year-olds, e.g., their physical health or financial security, we may set lower age parameters, cutting ourselves off from potential great matches.
Some people may believe that as we get older, we have to “settle” or be grateful for any dates, and give up on seeking what we really want. We may think, “well, maybe this is the best I can do.” Shenker reported being told this by a professional matchmaker. Internalized ageism also affects the stories we tell about ourselves, e.g., that we’re too old for a certain match. We might select a photo of our younger selves on the site, inevitably leading to problems later.
Apps should connect people based upon lifestyle and interests, not on age.
Finally, despite the 2023 TLC dating show “MILF Manor,” gendered ageism is real. Research continues to show that men prefer younger women, not only in apps but also in real life. Traditional expectations about gender roles may interfere with getting to know someone, and women especially are likely to reject outdated stereotypes about gender roles.
“We are different that we were at 25,” Sankowski said. Of the women who came of age in the 1970s and held big corporate jobs, Shenker noted: “I find that a lot of women like me who are working, vibrant, traveling, and have disposable income to enjoy life are matched with people stuck in the Donna Reed era.”
Asked what they would like to see in dating apps, those I interviewed had great suggestions:
- Apps that connect people based upon lifestyle and interests. All the research shows that we become more heterogenous as we age and that generational stereotypes are just that, so using age as a key matching factor doesn’t make sense.
- Apps that defy the “bland and beige” of many products geared toward older adults. There is support for apps geared toward older adults, in part so that “older men looking for 25-year-olds won’t be on it.”
But these apps should have the best features of apps like Tinder, and not reinforce stereotypes. Sankowski’s advice to those designing apps? “This is the time in my life where I can feel joy. Use that tone when you when you’re marketing. Make it fun, make it engaging, make it colorful.”
Alive Ventures found in its 2022 research that because of the risk of scams and the number of fake profiles, “Older adults would value vetting or verification being built into these offerings to give them confidence that they have a genuine chance of finding a real, quality partner.”
We know that AgeTech is terrific at designing robots for caregiving and company. What about issuing a challenge to deploy those talents to design a dating/friendship connection app that might facilitate meaningful, real-life connection?
And for those designing in-person programs for older adults? How about opportunities for dating connections in real life? An event ala “Sex in the City” where everyone brings a date that didn’t work for them but might for someone else? A dating coach on staff?
As we live longer and mostly healthier lives, the desire for social and romantic connection continues. For all of us, this is an opportunity. Love doesn’t have an expiration date.
Janine Vanderburg is director of Changing the Narrative, a U.S.-based initiative to change the way that people think, talk and act about aging and ageism. Our goal? To end ageism.