Will the 2020s be the decade we return to dating offline?

The new decade is upon us, and with it, a flurry of New Year’s resolutions. This year, I’ve made just one: no more dating apps.

Like many, I am tired of conversations that go nowhere and the apparently limitless opportunity to be surprised and disappointed. I want to take a nostalgic punt on IRL (in real life) love and slow down the dating process.

In the 80s, almost half of couples surveyed met through friends, through a co-worker or at a bar or restaurant. By the 90s, this had barely shifted.Credit:iStock

“Now, there is this pressure to know if it's the 'right' person really quickly. Before, it was okay and expected to take time getting to know one another,” says Nira Lall, a relationship coach who met her partner in the '90s.

It is predicted that single person households will account for 65 per cent of the Australian population by 2026, yet a reported 4.5 million Aussies use online dating sites and apps. But, at the start of last decade, Tinder was what you used to start a fire. So, what's next?

A return to the past

Statistician Nathan Yau of FlowingData has data from a Stanford University survey to create shifting digital chart to show the changes in the way couples met between the 1960s and 2010s.

In the '80s, almost half of couples surveyed met through friends, through a co-worker or at a bar or restaurant. By the '90s, this had barely shifted.

Lall, 36, met her now husband “at a friend of a friend's house party in the summer of 1999 in Canada”.

“We were very young [16 years old] so most couples our age met through friends or at school.”

So although Match.com made its US debut in 1995, less than 2 per cent of couples were meeting online by the end of the '90s. Want to date like the lovers of the '80s and '90s? Spend more time with your friends and colleagues, and find a local bar.

Romance.com hits in the ‘00s

“Back in the early 2000’s, it was more usual to meet through friends or whilst out or through work colleagues” says Nicola Gregson, 47, who met her partner in London through friends in 2003 and remembers the online dating scene was "still fairly new and looked at with some scepticism".

Stigma around internet dating remained for much of the decade. I know this because in around 2006, I quietly set up an online dating profile on Guardian Soulmates. In those early days, blurry profile pictures weren’t an obvious red flag, and so I spent one awkward date with a man who looked nothing like I’d expected. I subsequently deleted my profile and kept pretty quiet about my foray into online love.

And yet, by the end of the '00s, nearly 10 per cent of couples claimed to have met online, Eharmony.com had launched in Australia in 2007 and dating app Grindr was first seen in the US two years later

Swipe right for love: the '10s and beyond

Incredibly, in just a few years, being shy about swiping has become a thing of the past. A 2019 survey by the ABC showed one third of Australians who met their partner that year had done so online. Digital dating emerged as the most popular way to meet people over the course of the 2010s.

“I met my partner just shy of seven years ago on Plenty Of Fish, a fact I spent a good four years actively hiding due to embarrassment as it was pre-Tinder times when meeting someone online under the age of 50 was looked down upon,” says Helen Turnbull, 30.

Tinder launched in 2014, and Bumble followed in 2017. Now, in 2020, it’s hard to have a conversation about dating apps that isn’t actually a beleaguered account of ghosting, cushioning, or unsolicited dick pics. It’s what makes me long for the IRL dating methods of a few decades ago.

“Like a lot of people, I feel like I could write a book about my Tinder experiences – men who were engaged, [or the] one who had gotten married two weeks before our date,” says 39-year-old Lindsay Johnston, who was ready to delete the app before it led to meeting her partner in 2014.

“I think traditional forms of dating could be on the rise. I hope so. The negative behaviours associated with dating apps are getting worse and I think can have a really harmful impact.”

Turnbull agrees: “Although meeting someone IRL is a lot easier said than done – I do think we all secretly hope for the fairytale meeting.”

It seems many are quietly hopeful that the 2020s will see a rebirth of a simpler style of dating.

“I think we all need to look up more, make eye contact and remember the importance of the human connection,” says Johnston. “You never know who you might be sitting next to this weekend.”

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