How Does Dating Work? Age Plays a Big Role in This Question

Younger and older Americans have radically different views of how dating “should” progress, and whether it is even supposed to be fun.

The author(s)

  • Sarah Feldman Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs
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If you find dating and romantic relationships baffling, there’s good news - you’re not alone. No one can seem to agree on what dating should look like, a new Ipsos study finds.

To better understand this, we asked all people—regardless of whether they are currently dating— to tell us how they think a relationship should progress. Key milestones of a relationship typically include meeting someone, moving in together, marriage, meeting someone’s parents/family, sleeping together, going on a date, and going on vacation together.

Where all of these key milestones should fall in the progression of a relationship can be a divisive point for many, particularly for men and women and those dating in the digital age. What age bracket you’re in is also likely to make a difference in how you think a relationship unfolds, particularly around attitudes of sex and introducing a new relationship to family members.

Older people tend to adhere to more traditional values, waiting to engage in physical intimacy until they’ve achieved other key relationship milestones. About half of people under the age of 55 think sex comes after meeting someone and going on a date, while only a third of people over the age of 55 agree that sex comes right after those two steps.

Nearly twice the share of people over 55 placed sex somewhere between the fourth and sixth relationship milestone. Only a third of under 35-er’s delayed sex for that long.

When is it appropriate to sleep with someone while dating


Younger adults also tend to be more open-minded about what having sex early on in a relationship means for its future. Five times as many young adults see sex on the first date as a positive as their 55+ counterparts. About a fifth of people under 35 see sex on the first date as having a positive impact on the future of a relationship, while only 4% of those over 55 agree. Inversely, about four in ten (39%) of over 55-er's need more than five dates before a couple has sex. Only 16% of people under 35 agree.

While older adults generally think sex should come later in the life cycle of a relationship, they were much more likely to place meeting the family before many other events. Half of those over 55 (53%) see introducing a new relationship to family as the third important milestone a couple embarks on. Only 29% of people under 35 would want to introduce their parents and family to a relationship that early. Slightly more 35 to 54-year-olds would place meeting parents as the third point in the progression of a budding relationship.  

When is it appropriate to meet someone's family


Despite, or perhaps because of, this delay older adults don’t take dating as seriously as younger ones do. Nearly 58% of those over 55 agree that the purpose of dating is to have fun, not to find a spouse or life-partner. While those between 18 and 34 take dating far more seriously, with only about a third of people (35%) agreeing that dating is supposed to be fun, with the end game not necessarily involving finding a spouse or a life-partner.

Is Dating Supposed to Be Fun?


In that same vein, older people are more likely to put off conversations about exclusivity. 72% of those between 18 and 34 see that conversation happening between the one- and three-month point, while about half (48%) of people over 55 see that happening somewhere between the six month and one year mark.

It’s hard to say whether these social trends are part of changing attitudes towards sex and dating, or whether these shifts just occur with age. We can say that after meeting somebody and going on a date or two, it is anybody’s guess what happens next.


The author(s)

  • Sarah Feldman Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs