Future of Dating 2050: the impact of a changing society
The way that people meet, communicate with one another and form connections is ever changing. Each generation faces its own distinct challenges.
In the years since eharmony launched in the UK in 2008, the country has undergone widespread transformation, having weathered the worst of the financial crash, seen major political changes and witnessed generational pressures, as both older and younger minds increasingly challenge the somewhat turbulent status quo.
In previous reports we have compiled with Imperial College looking at the Future of Dating, we’ve looked at everything from full-sensory virtual dating, behaviour based matching, to wearable technology and the smart home.
In this, our fourth report, we have taken a different approach. Rather than focus only on the role of technology this year, we want to focus on how changes in the economy – and specifically how we live and work – will increasingly alter the fabric of society.
To do this, we’ve worked with some of the future’s brightest minds from Imperial College Business School, pooling our collective expertise to combine future gazing in demographics, societal projections and tech with our own knowledge of human relationships.
Notably, increased life expectancy, the fusion of cultures, the rate of cohabitation and emerging technologies will provide compelling new opportunities for innovation. In order to serve the dramatically changing population, the online dating industry will, as ever, need to be adaptable and responsive to the complex challenges which lie ahead.
Ultimately, the most important thing is thinking about how love will endure in an increasingly fast-paced, tech-rich environment. We believe that regardless of how much society changes, people will always yearn for partners who share their passions, values and beliefs.
That’s why we’re confident that online dating services such as eharmony – which specialise in bespoke matching and the science of compatibility – will maintain a leading role in the future of dating.
Romain Bertrand, Managing Director, eharmony.
This report is a collaboration between relationship experts eharmony.co.uk and Imperial College Business School MSc Management students. The primary literature includes interviews, press releases, and newspaper articles from relevant bodies in the UK, while the secondary data is based on peer-reviewed journals and industry reports from reputable sources.
The report focuses on three factors affecting the structure of dating and relationships: demographic projections (including life expectancy, population, ethnography, health), social projections (including marriage rates, alternative relationships, religious/cultural shifts) and technological shifts (rate of technological change, effects on labour market, emerging technologies).
By 2050, there will be approximately 8.1 million UK residents aged 80 or older. That figure is the equivalent to the current population of London. With increasing life expectancy, the population aged 100 and over are expected to climb to just under 200,000 people – a jump from 14,000 in 2017.
Come 2050, although younger generations will still online date, the market will substantially shift to older generations due in part to the demographic factors highlighted above along with technological advances. Projections indicate that by 2050, the median age of an online dater will reach 47, up from 38 in the present day.
Overall, the increasing reliance on finding love online will mean that come 2050, 82% of people are projected to find a partner online, whether through VR, AR, more traditional online platforms or some combination of all of these and future tech.
As age is such a key part of understanding how the changing demographics of the UK will have an impact on our love lives and dating, the report is divided into three categories. While grouping a diverse range of people into ‘generations’ is never going to result in absolute, clear boundaries, each 2050 cohort highlighted here will broadly speaking face their own singular challenges, display different attitudes and hold diverging priorities. The categories are:
- Generation Alpha – 2050’s 18-35 year-olds
- Generation Y– 2050’s 35-65 year-olds
- Generation X – 2050’s over-65s
18-35 years old in 2050
In the present day, 18-30 year olds make up the most significant proportion of those who use online dating services and apps. Currently, one in eight1 people aged between 18 and 34 say they met their most recent partner via online dating. This is more than any other age group.
Familiarity with and willingness to use technology for finding love is less widespread among more mature age groups partly because they are not “digital natives”. But a combination of economic pressures and technological advances will affect the way young people go about finding love, and impact on the age breakdown of various services.
To a far greater extent than the present day, using online dating services will be second nature for those aged 35 and up. Meanwhile, new tech-innovations will offer increasingly adventurous, digital-dating experiences.
Crucially, on the domestic front, shared space will make romantic relationships more challenging for this generation. This is because young people in the UK will be more and more likely to live with their parents rather than finding a place of their own. As can be seen below from ONS data, the UK has already seen almost a 25% increase in the number of people living with their parents.
This figure is predicted to rise to nearly one in three young people living with parents by 2050. The projection in the chart above takes into account factors such as expected increases in property prices. Barclays (2017) expects to see house prices rise across all UK areas between now and 2021. Similarly, a study from Santander (2016) predicts that by 2030, 5% of UK housing stock will be valued at £1 million or more. While there are no guarantees that the UK will not see a housing crash before 2050, with the national population expected to continue growing and to reach 77.5m – the largest in Europe – by 2050 (ONS, 2015), demand will remain high.
This pressure is set to leave a lot of young people living with family for longer, creating something of a social paradox. On one hand, it will become harder to find privacy and personal space, but one surprising result will be that families are likely to become closer, with traditions like family meal times making a reappearance, even as our lifestyles become increasingly digitised in other areas. Additionally, removing the cost of rent or mortgage from monthly outgoings does have the impact of easing burdens on income for young people.
This will be a much needed relief as predictions from IPPR suggest that that the decade from 2020 to 2030 will see ‘low growth, low interest rates’ and ‘heavy stagnation’ (IPPR, 2016), all of which will adversely affect household income. Young people will be hit particularly hard by this, combined with rising prices for goods as predicted by Which? (2013). This will be a major part of why the culture of dating will be more of a challenge for the 18-35 group in 2050.
For the better-educated, current trends indicate a delay in entering serious relationships, rather than an avoidance – and with the changing nature of UK industry, we can expect this to have an impact on the life priorities of young people in 2050 too.
As seen in the period between 1979-2012, during which high-skilled workers gained over 80% of the jobs lost by semi-skilled workers (Salvatori, 2015), even more 18-35 year-olds will be in higher education. To meet the demands of an increasingly automated workforce requiring skilled labour, as well as pursuing learning for its own sake, higher education participation rates should stay steady, reaching 75% by 2050.
All of this means that crucially, use of online dating services to meet people face-to-face will likely be deferred for many until greater stability can be established in their life and careers. This means the make-up of traditional online dating services will be very different to the present day: currently 42% of users are aged 18-35s (eharmony, 2017). By 2050, we can expect around 30% of online daters will be aged 18-35 as other age groups come to use services in ever greater numbers.
Young people will still be looking for love online, but the way they do it is likely to change. We are set to see a progressive shift in the imminent years, with options to video date becoming standard across the industry. The natural next step will be dating via VR and AR. For young people, this will be a cost-effective way to meet other singles, interact, and increase ways to spend time together. Rather than the current practice of dating online largely being a route to meeting in person, much of this generation will be accustomed to technology that removes physical contact so the expectation for under 30s to date in person will be lessened.
2015’s Future of Dating 2040 report from eharmony and Imperial College London, predicted that by 2040, virtual dates will be commonplace, as the rate at which we will be able to transfer data digitally will be so fast that as well as having visual and audio virtual reality, this VR will be ‘full-sensory’. This means it will also be able to transfer digital simulations to smell, taste and even touch.
With VR and AR dating, which is likely to decrease rapidly in price as the technology becomes an everyday item; issues with the cost of dating and lack of space available due to more intergenerational housing are avoided in the short term.
In short, this generation will still use online dating to meet people face to face, but most likely in smaller doses. A significant proportion will also embrace new technology, looking towards virtual or augmented reality alternatives.
35 – 65 years old in 2050
Just as familiarity with virtual reality and augmented reality will potentially have a significant impact on the dating habits of the 18-35 year-olds of 2050, the millennial generation are set for a future of near ubiquitous use of online dating. As of 2017, 40% of millennials have tried online dating apps and services. The number of 25-34 year-olds using online dating has doubled between 2012 and 2017 and we can expect a similar upward trend pattern to continue among the rest of this group (eharmony).
With this in mind, projections suggest that as much as 86% of those aged 35-65 will have looked online for love come 2050 via online, video, VR or AR dating.
Beyond the existing propensity among this age group to use online and app-based dating services, the aging population and those same economic pressures (low growth, wage stagnation) will have an impact on the 35-65 year-olds of 2050. Use of dating sites has been shown to be influenced by financial wellbeing, with a greater desire for companionship during economic downturns. Even during the global economic crisis in 2008-9, ‘online dating sites saw business look up’ (The Economist, 2009).
As such, 35-65 year-olds are projected to be the largest group of online daters in 2050. Longer life expectancy and changing social norms will mean we’re expected to have four key relationships – of a year or more – across the average 87-year lifetime (ONS 2015) and advances in fertility technology will delay childbearing, allowing people to date for longer and have the option to travel or build a career.
According to ONS data, the average age of mothers or fathers has increased by almost 4 years over the last 4 decades. The most recent data found that in 2015, the average age of a father was 33.2 years of age while a mother’s was 30.3 years. Falling birth rates among the under-30s and rising birth rates at older ages reflect trends evident since the mid-1970s. While currently, 4.2% of mothers giving birth are 40 and over, this figure is expected to reach 13% by 2050 based on progress in fertility technology.
Based on these factors, projections indicate that by 2050, the median age of an online dater will reach 47, up from 38 in the present day.
Other societal factors will influence the number of people aged 35-65 who are not in a relationship in 2050, opening up the pool among this age group. Firstly, with more children living at home and longer life expectancies also potentially necessitating home care, we will see an intensification of the ‘sandwich generation’ issues seen today – meaning singles will be more time-poor and so less able to meet people organically.
In 2016, marriage rates were at a historical low of 50.1% (ONS), with the decline in marriage a product of gender imbalance and rise of feminism in society (Silva, Goulart & Obreshkova, 2016), as well as the waning impact of organised religion. We can expect these trends to continue.
Taking these factors into account, the marriage rate based on historic ONS data can be projected to decrease to around 40% by 2050, and the number of singles is set to surpass married people by 2042, meaning more people will be actively looking for a partner. Based on changing demographics and projected numbers of singles, there will be 32% more single people in the 35-65 age bracket, the majority of whom will be turning to online dating services.
Meanwhile, although divorce rates are currently on the rise, we can expect rates to begin to stagnate between now and 2050. This is due to fewer marriages in the first instance, improved fertility placing less pressure on relationships at key points (West, 2017), and a rise of alternative bonds and relationships, from marriage renewal to polyamory.
The diminishing importance of organised religion is another factor already having an impact on traditional relationship structures. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey (NatCen, 2017) found a majority of people (53%) say they have no religion for the first time. With young people currently more than twice as likely than the eldest in society to say they have no religion (71% vs 27%), we could see the overall proportion hit or even exceed 70% by 2050 as today’s young non-religious people become middle-aged.
Although less value will be held in the institution of marriage, this does not imply depreciation of relationships. Polyamorous relationships may become more commonplace and sociologists argue that these relationships could alleviate the pressures of binding commitment by consensually fulfilling needs through other individuals (Conley and Moors, 2014). These dramatic societal changes mean that those looking for love – as well as those offering relationship services – will focus less on family and procreation and more on existential needs.
Similarly, a proportion of those aged 35 plus will give AR and VR dating a try too, rather than sticking exclusively to just one option. Some of this group will be those not ready to commit to searching for a serious relationship, while others will just be keen to experiment. To meet this need, many services will offer all options.
65 years old and above in 2050
While in absolute numbers, ‘middle aged’ daters aged 35-65 year-old will make up most of the traditional online dating landscape in 2050, the over 65s will see the biggest increase of online daters largely due to longer life expectancy and advances in health. This means a new wave of more mature people will embrace the online dating world in unforeseen numbers.
Increased life expectancies means that nearly a quarter of the population will be over 60 in 2050 compared to around 15% now. An incredible 8.1 million people will be within the 80-100+ bracket and there will be a twelvefold increase in those who are 100+, increasing from 14,000 to 189,000 (ONS, 2015). Therefore, we can also expect the share of online daters in this age group to increase come 2050.
Future medical technologies will help the over 65s in 2050 seem more like the 40-somethings of today. Advances in genomics mean that customised medicine and therapy is not far off, while 3D printing drugs or even things like ears or simple organs at a patient’s bedside has the potential to extend quality of life significantly (Mesko, 2017).
With this drastic shift in the age breakdown of the population, and improved health and wellbeing among older people, many of this age group is likely to still have some role in the workforce. This means more disposable income and more quality, healthy years in which to enjoy it.
Currently, around 9% of those aged 65+ have ever used an online dating service. However, it is those aged 35-55 in 2017 that will make up the majority of this group. This gives a starting base of 27% of the total percentage of online daters.
Tracking this forward in time alongside changes in demographics, we can expect those aged over 65 to make up around a third (32%) of mobile and online daters in 2050, particularly as lifespans increase, quality of later life improves, and more people are looking for love a second or third time around.
More people in this age group will also seek second – or often third – long terms relationships and marriages. The growing trend for remarriage among older singles and widow(er)s can already be seen in the present day, with marriage rates among over-65s bucking trends to increase by almost a half between 2009 and 2014 (ONS, 2016). Dr Kate Davidson, expert at the British Society of Gerontology, suggests that most will be remarriages from divorces due to a “greater availability of women willing to take a second chance”.
Changes to the role of marriage in society and fairly high divorce rates among Generation X in the present day, with the group making up a significant part of all divorces (ONS, 2016), may mean over-65s in 2050 aren’t quite as likely to remarry. However, many will still at least enter into committed relationships as the stigma around having multiple dedicated-relationships over the course of a life is eradicated.
With cohabitation increasing within today’s society even as marriage declines, we can expect Generation X and older millennials to still largely be looking for monogamous relationships while younger generations are more likely to explore polyamorous dating. In terms of how online dating services of all kinds deal with this, it is unlikely that the industry will majorly target alternative relationships. Instead there will be a continuation of heavily-targeted, niche services for non-traditional relationships.
Currently, 12% of people aged 65+ met someone via online dating (eharmony, 2017). Come 2050, the proportion of singles aged over 65 meeting people online could be as high as 78% – a huge growth predicated on current uptake among this generation in 2017 and the changing nature and demography of society.
In 2050, the natural human need for love will still be predominant but there will be a more relaxed approach to settling down since we’ll live longer and won’t need to worry about childbearing until a much later age.
Mostly aimed at younger singles, AR and VR dating will take the place of today’s swipe culture that we see in casual hook up apps today. These services will coexist alongside traditional online dating, often provided by the same platform, to create a new landscape for finding love online. This will in part be a response to economic and societal pressures such as stagnant incomes and more young people living at home.
With technology taking over and the need to do things quickly and efficiently increasing, finding someone that an online algorithm knows you’re compatible with instantly will become the norm.
Declining birth and marriage rates translate into an industry that focuses less on family and pro-creation and more on existential needs. While long-term relationships will still be a path for most, the expectation that they will last for life will be less widespread.
The landscape of online dating will move towards more mature daters and the average age of those using traditional online dating, as opposed to VR-focused services, will increase. Since we’ll be living longer, more than one serious relationship over a lifetime will be the norm, with a wave of second and third time around daters in their 60s and 70s come 2050.
There will be a key role for companies like eharmony, continuing to help couples move their relationships from online to offline.
About the report
The UK 2050: Insights into the Future of Dating report was created by a team of MSc Management students from Imperial College Business School for their Consulting Project.
The team who worked on the project comprised of Shiori Miyake, Matthew McEveety, Oluwaseyi Rasheed, Allen Michelle Wihono, Isabel Wozencroft and Thomas Thomson. The aim of the project was to investigate the ways that the changing structure of UK society will affect the future of dating. Looking forward to 2050, researchers considered a wide range of demographic and technological factors facing the country, covering areas such as the ageing population, changing social and religious values and the attached decline in marriage, economic factors such as wages, automation and inequality, and changes to technology including the role of virtual reality and augmented reality devices.
The research drew on a combination of longitudinal studies by think tanks and organisations, data from online daters, research produced by experts from different fields of the social sciences and national omnibus data. Based on this and extensive literature reviews, detailed analysis and extrapolation of historic data, the students created a report that predicted what dating could look like in 2050 based on predicted social change.
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