Inside the Awkward World of Millennial Dating

What happens when a generation is too cautious to live the outgoing social-media versions of themselves in real life?

Millennials are a generation in Internet limbo. Credit: Chad Batka/Redux

Asher, who hosts and produces a storytelling group in New York, has been dating online for seven years. Recently, he met a girl on the app Bumble, and the two began to casually date. At first, she welcomed the emotional vulnerability between the two of them. They got close quickly, but after a couple months she began to push him away, until she ghosted him completely. "I think the culture we live in leads to this idea that there could always be someone else out there, so we don't want to get attached to anyone," he says. "We don't want to actually let ourselves fall for anyone because what if someone else better is out there?"

Asher is struggling, as are many Millennials – defined by the Pew Research center as the group of people born after 1980 who came into their young adulthood in or near 2000, of which this writer is a part – to understand how his own generation has redefined courtship. Not that any generation has figured out a foolproof way of forming human connections. But for Millennials, online dating seems to have further complicated the already mysterious process of falling in love. Our entire approach to adulthood has shifted, in fact, from where we choose to live, to how long we stay in school. The Millennial's economic situation is now firmly linked to how we approach relationships. The media, too, has trouble deciphering what exactly our motivations in life are: Do we move in with our parents because we're lazy and co-dependent or because we're perpetually broke? Are we having nonstop kinky sex with one-night stands or remaining celibate into adulthood? But perhaps we're so misunderstood by society-at-large because even Millennials themselves haven't quite decided what we want.

Despite that confusion, the caricature of the commitment-phobic, sex-starved, Tinder-obsessed, strictly-a-casual-dater Millennial had to come from somewhere, and the Internet is probably to blame: Most Millennials project an outgoing version of ourselves on social media that we're too cautious to actually live out in reality.

The language of social media is that of openness, and most Millennials (90 percent of us, according to Pew) use it, often publicizing our personal lives – including the intimate details of our sexual encounters. We proudly tout our dating hang-ups on a forum that lets us broadcast our problems in the moment. Scroll through the "explore" section of Instagram, for instance, and you'll find posts on Tinder nightmares, how to belittle your ex, the importance of "cuffing season" and the struggle of being single when you "miss regular dick." The freedom to share our sexual experiences with the world gives us an uncommon camaraderie among our peers. You hate your ex? Me too. You're stalking your crush on Facebook? Same. 

We are the generation in an Internet-limbo, nostalgic for a childhood when the World Wide Web was still new while being forced to accept a technology-dependent society in adulthood.

With that camaraderie comes a lessening of the shame that the generations before ours felt about sex. Our desires are no longer strange; we feel free to discuss all of our preoccupations with sex and dating, no matter how unusual or potentially embarrassing. Studies show that the stigma around sex is fading: One 2012 survey from the University of San Diego found that 58 percent of respondents said there was nothing wrong with sex before marriage, and another study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that 45 percent of us of have had casual sex, compared to only 35 percent in the Eighties.

While these platforms make us feel less alone in the struggles that go along with maintaining a romantic relationship, social media simultaneously isolates us: Instagram and Twitter promise an audience of Millions without the awkwardness or inconvenience of real-world interactions. The Millennial habit of oversharing on social media is over-compensation for these cultural growing pains: We are the generation in an Internet-limbo, nostalgic for a childhood when the World Wide Web was still new while being forced to accept a technology-dependent society in adulthood.

Millennials want to live in that in-between space, where our addiction to social media doesn't exclude personal intimacy, but we haven't mastered how to balance our needs yet. The generation ahead us is fluent in technology; those now-teenagers were raised on it. But Millennials live in two worlds: one that didn't need the Internet to fall in love, and one that almost requires it. Constantly being detached from actual people – swiping through Tinder on our phones, scrolling through strangers' Instagram profiles – creates a fear of the intimacy we crave, too. Millennials don't yet have the skills to translate our desire for personal connections from the computer screen to real life – hence all that ghosting and failed Tinder dates.

This is an era of experimentation for young people as they try to have it all: their obsession with the Internet and their desire for intimacy.

Pew found that only 5 percent of Americans who are married or in a long-term relationship met their partner online. As much as Millennials share online, they still don't trust it to find love. This is an era of experimentation for young people as they try to have it all: their obsession with the Internet and their desire for intimacy.

If you're single, struggling to reconcile the distance that the Internet somehow both creates and closes between potential partners, how better to avoid the social awkwardness of face-to-face interactions and assuage the fear of rejection than by sliding into some hot girl's DMs, comfortable in the illusion of a personal conversation without actually having one? Perhaps young people are putting off sex in increasing numbers because they're afraid that when the moment of intimacy actually arrives, they won't know how to act. Not that the movements won't come naturally, but that the accompanying emotional vulnerability we assume is supposed to exist will never arise afterward.

Has the Internet done permanent damage to the way Millennials relate to each other? Probably. But dating apps haven't made young people rabid for random sexual encounters, either. In fact, they're looking for the opposite: A recent study from Florida Atlantic University found that more and more young adults are forgoing sex.

"This study really contradicts the widespread notion that Millennials are the 'hookup' generation, which is popularized by dating apps like Tinder," Dr. Ryne Sherman, the study's co-author, says.

His study found that 11 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds born from 1980 to 1990 reported being sexually inactive. But for adults born in 1990 from 1996, that percentage jumped to 15 percent. Over the entire population, Dr. Sherman says, that's a dramatic difference – but he also clarifies that that doesn't mean Millennials are practicing abstinence, either. After all, the other 85 percent of these younger Millennials are having sex.

Dr. Sherman has a couple theories about why an increasing number of young adults are reporting that they're sexually inactive. What might be different with this generation is that the majority of Millennials received sex-education (87 percent), and grew up with an awareness, and a fear, of the AIDS epidemic, making us more hesitant when it comes to sexual encounters. Millennials might actually be a cautious bunch in general, less inclined to take risks: Last year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that young people these days are far less likely to use drugs, abuse alcohol, and use tobacco. But in a contradictory report, a common theme among data available about Millennials, the CDC found that STD rates are at an all-time high among young people, which seems to refute that we're better educated about safe sex and more careful in general. Perhaps our growing acceptance of random hook-ups has backfired on us. Dr. Sherman's study, however, might point to a drop in those rates in the future.

Since 2008's economic decline, Millennials have found that delaying most aspects of adulthood is in their best interest. Goldman Sachs reported that so far in the 2010s, the median age for marriage is 30 – seven years later than in the 1970s. In 2012, a very meager 23 percent of 18- to 31-year-olds were married and living in their own households. For the first time in more than 130 years, adults aged 18 to 34 are more likely to live with their parents than with a partner. Overall, Millennials are pushing back the age of adulthood, usually as a reaction to our environment – the difficult-to-crack job market, and the ever-rising cost of rent. Sex is just another step toward becoming an adult that Millennials are avoiding.

While procreation will always be a biological imperative among humans, dating is a process that continues to evolve: If the economy doesn't make room for struggling Millennials, perhaps marriage will go out of fashion altogether. And as technology continues to advance, our dating pool will widen even farther, and so will our options for when and how we choose to meet potential mates. It's possible that the confusion over how to date in our technology-dependent era will only deepen for this generation. Perhaps there's no use in trying to figure us out. After all, we haven't even figured out ourselves. 

'Millennials of New York' creator Connor Toole created a few tips to recognize the growing generation. Watch here.