How times change. Just 20 years ago, all but 10 percent of baby boomers were married. Figures from the latest American Community Survey show that nearly 40 percent of Americans ages 45 to 65 are now single — and apparently loving it.
A recent survey of boomers from Del Webb, a builder of retirement communities, found that while the majority of boomer singles are interested in dating, only 11 percent want to get married. The rest, or so one might assume, are out for fun and companionship, and plenty are using modern technology to find partners.
According to Del Webb, nearly 20 percent of single boomers are already using online dating services. And the latest, logical iteration of that is a proliferation of dating apps for smartphones. These can streamline meeting and screening potential partners, help you explore social networks for people you might like — and even let you check out singles in close proximity in real time.
But since dating by smartphone is still pretty new (and since I’m happily married), I enlisted the help of Seattle-based online dating consultant Virginia Roberts to evaluate some of these new tools.
(MORE: Be a Winner in the Digital Dating Game)
Rule No. 1: Start Simple
Most online dating services also have a mobile app, “so if you already pay for an established dating service, start with their app,” Roberts says. The one from eHarmony (Apple, Android, from $20 a month) matches you with potential dates, lets you send and receive messages and review who has checked out your profile. Match.com’s app (Apple, Android, Windows, BlackBerry, from $15 a month) boasts the largest pool to choose from (millions at any given moment) but can be a little more confusing to use. Both of those companies report that boomers are their fastest-growing demographic.
People who find these huge sites intimidating might consider a smaller “specialty” dating service that aims to connect people who share the same hobby, school or religious beliefs. “If spirituality is important to you, religious online dating apps are better than mainstream services,” Roberts says. JDate (Apple, from $20 a month) attracts hundreds of thousands of (mostly) Jewish singles, and Christian Mingle (Android, from $15 a month) claims it can help “find God’s match for you.” Date My School (Apple, Android, free) helps students and alums find sweethearts who share their alma mater.
(MORE: Why Middle Age Is the Best Time to Fall in Love)
Free and Easy Apps
If you’re getting involved with digital dating for the first time, you can keep your wallet in your pocket, at least for now. “There’s no need to pay for a mobile dating app,” Roberts says. “Use the free apps so you can get a feel for what meeting people on your smartphone is like.”
Most apps start by asking you to create a profile for yourself — basic information, like your age, occupation, likes and dislikes, and usually a photo. Roberts’ advice: Never use your real name as a username. Choose something that reflects your interests or personality. The service will then either automatically highlight compatible people from its database or let you browse other people’s profiles — or both.
Even if you create your profile from your mobile device, give it your full involvement, Roberts says. “A self-portrait taken with your phone isn’t the best idea,” she says. “Fix up your makeup or hair and have a pal take some nice photos of you at a social event with a nice smile.”
OK Cupid (Apple, Android, free) is Roberts’ favorite dating app: It’s easy to navigate and use, plus people seem to like the matches its software suggests. Plenty of Fish (Apple, Android, free) has an app that is nothing to look at, but with 45 million members, this is definitely a great place to go fish. The Ph.D.s behind its mate-matching software even claim that their recommendations “click” 17 percent of the time.
Love the One You’re With (or Near)
No matter what your preferences for mates or style of dating, there’s an app perfectly suited for you. Visiting a new place or looking to meet people in your neighborhood — now? A “location-aware” dating app that uses the GPS in your phone helps you find other singles in your ZIP code.
Crazy Blind Date (Apple, Android, free) lets you pick a time and place to meet up (e.g., “Starbucks at 7 p.m.”), and then suggests people who might be able to make it. The app, from the OK Cupid team, never discloses your precise location for safety reasons — and unlike most apps, doesn’t post photos (talk about a blind date!). You simply message each other and arrange your meetup.
As with all first dates, you should always meet in a public place, let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back, and have your mode of transport planned out. Roberts has more helpful safety tips on her Heartographer website.
Another app that uses your location is Tinder (Apple, free). This one shows your photos of singles in your vicinity and lets you select the ones whose appearances appeal to you. If they click on you back, it sends you a message and lets you arrange a meeting. The downside: Both Tinder and Crazy Blind Date are rather sparsely populated, compared with the larger dating services, and tend to cater to a younger crowd.
Many of these dating apps ask you to log in using your Facebook account. This makes it easy to build your profile, as you probably already have some good pictures posted there. “But,” Roberts says, “if you’re not already a Facebook user, don’t go down that rabbit hole just for an app.” Most services will also let you create an account and upload photos without it. How to find out? Look for a “more options” choice when you first open the app.
Quirky Dating Apps
There are hundreds of other dating apps out there, most of which are not worth downloading. But a few lesser-known apps offer some interesting approaches. With Blendr (Apple, Android, free) you specify whether you’re interested in dating, making friends or just chatting. It's quick and easy — and you could be setting up your first date in just minutes. How About We (Apple, from $8 a month) is ideal for people who like the convenience of an app for finding dates but want to meet in person as soon as possible. You can post your idea of a perfect date to your profile, or the app can suggest interesting dates like taking cooking lessons or going to a concert — and often gives you a discount on them, too.
An intriguing new dating app is Hinge (Apple, Android, free), where people can leverage the power of their social network (you will need a Facebook account for this one). Every day at noon, Hinge sends to members a few photos of “friends of friends” who are unattached. You simply choose the ones you’re interested in. If the feeling is mutual, the app puts you in touch. If not, or if they’re not using Hinge yet, they’ll never know of your attraction — so there are no awkward moments should you meet in real life.
What’s cool about this approach is that you’ve already got at least one friend in common. Plus the potential is vast. According to Facebook, the average user has a staggering 30,000 friends of friends, and really active users could connect to a million people or more. And possibly the best thing about the brave new dating world is that it’s all just a screen-swipe away.
Mark E. Harris is an award-winning British science, technology and lifestyle journalist based in Seattle. He writes for NextAvenue, The Economist, The Sunday Times and Wired UK. He tweets from @meharris.