Last year, an elderly woman informed me I was going to die alone.
I don’t think she meant it as an insult. As we sat in her floor-to-ceiling chintz living room during one of my weekly visits, she stared at me through bifocal lenses that magnified her eyes to the size of saucers and told me straight: my romantic prospects at the advanced age of 27 were slim.
I had been a volunteer with homebound elderly residents in my neighbourhood for a few weeks, which mostly entailed listening to stories while nibbling on biscuits. And by all accounts, my eccentric friend was an authority on matters of love.
A bombshell blonde in postwar Britain, she met her first, second and third husbands at the organised dances that took place at a club near Trafalgar Square each Friday night. Everyone went, apparently.
When I was forced to admit that my friends and I did not attend such functions, she cried: “BUT HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO MEET MEN?”
I wondered if she had a point.
Despite the proliferation of technology designed to make it easier to meet people, my generation is dating less, marrying later (if at all) and having a lot less sex than our parents.
We were raised on a rich diet of TV in which sexually liberated twenty- and thirtysomethings perpetually fell in and out of bed with attractive, STD-free partners they met in places like coffee shops or at work. Workplace romance has since become taboo — generally a good thing — and has anyone been picked up in a coffee shop since 2008?
The lapse between the expectation and the reality makes the lack feel all the more stark. As a single friend recently told me over drinks to celebrate an accidental abstinence anniversary, Sex and the City has a lot to answer for.
Studies aimed at decoding the sexual decline have found explanations ranging from macroeconomics to simple stress: 45 per cent of Britons reported in 2018 that stress had a negative impact on their sex lives.
Marriage has long been correlated with the economy, as people seek financial security before tying the knot. And while the marriage age has risen steadily since the advent of birth control, this trend has accelerated sharply in the decade since the 2008 financial crisis.
Buried under unprecedented mountains of student debt as housing prices skyrocket and wages lag behind inflation, our lustiest looks are saved for the real estate we can’t afford. We work longer hours for less income, and are more likely to rent accommodation with several roommates, cutting into both time and funds for dating.
But I don’t think young people are less interested in sex and romance than our forebears. In the UK, 93 per cent still say they aspire towards marriage.
The romantic landscape has changed dramatically. Dating apps that make it easier to meet new people you never would have otherwise encountered have also left a hole in their wake: meeting people in real life.
Mobile phones have all but eliminated happenstance. My parents met when both were stood up at a concert in Boston. I doubt my shy mother would have ventured out if her friend had texted her beforehand: “Really sorry, not gonna be able to make it?.?.?.?Sooooo tired xxxxx”, the cancel text every child of the mobile-phone generation will be familiar with.
Apps allow singles to jump from one prospect to the next with alarming speed. Committed relationships, the kind that require work and compromise, can struggle to find fertile ground. The casualness has given rise to impersonal dumping practices like ghosting and breadcrumbing, a tortured process of being strung along by digital interaction.
We live in a time that should be more open to sex, sexuality and romantic preference than ever before, and in many ways it is. Being single is considered an acceptable choice for women, as the actor Emma Watson illustrated this week when she declared herself happily “self-partnered”. Premarital sex and hookup culture is the norm, sexuality is recognised as a spectrum and polyamory and asexuality are both household terms. At any given time you could have multiple dating apps on your phone from Hinge to Bumble to Grindr to Tinder, presenting you with an endless buffet of potential compatibles.
But the abundance has left me craving something else: simplicity.
One Friday night this autumn, I went to a ceilidh — a traditional Scottish dance — at a community centre in London. When everyone was told to grab a partner of any gender, I was struck by how many people had arrived at the event alone. An elderly man sitting by himself threw himself into the melee. As we all held hands with strangers and moved to the tempo of the fiddle, I knew it had nothing to do with romance. But I wondered how many in the room had looked forward to this slightly sweaty moment of human connection all week long.
This coming weekend, like so many in my generation, so well connected but still so often lonely, there’s a high chance I’ll be bingeing Netflix and replying to Hinge messages.
But if it were up to me, I’d see you later at the weekly dance. We might move on to the next partner after a turn, or we might find happily ever after. Call me old-fashioned, but I think our generation still has something to learn about sex from our grandparents.
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