Inside the Dating Lives of Jersey’s Single Millennials

Armed with apps and too many choices, today’s singles try to rewrite the rules of courtship. (But then, don’t we all?)

Jersey City resident and podcaster Lynn Hazan describes dating in the digital age as “super overwhelming and having a third job.” Photo by Christopher Lane

Lynn Hazan, a 36-year-old digital entrepreneur, is holding court at &co, a downtown Jersey City coworking space from which she runs her several businesses. Hazan, a Jersey City resident, is the founder of an arts and culture blog, ChicpeaJC, and a dating podcast “Sex and Jersey City.” Not surprisingly, she seems to know everyone.

Amid the bustle of her fellow millennials—typing on laptops, taking meetings on lounge chairs and in conference rooms—Hazan finds time to give me her romantic history. She was married for 11 years. They had a daughter together. Two years ago, they separated and, a year later, divorced. 

When Hazan and her ex originally got together, there was no Tinder. No Bumble. No Instagram. “After the divorce, I was propelled into this whole new world of dating and sex and games and all this digital frenzy of meeting people,” Hazan says. “You get to a point sometimes where it gets super overwhelming and exhausting. It’s like having a third job.”

There’s a widely held belief that millennials have tossed away the trappings of conventional society. Job loyalty, the family unit, sex—all fading away. According to this theory, dating, too, is passé. Mobile technology—in this case, social media and dating apps—is seen as the root cause. 

Certainly, mobile technology has changed how people communicate. Just as text messaging has squeezed out phone calls, dating apps have supplanted blind dates. These apps allow users to swipe through hundreds of profiles, discarding poor matches in an instant, signaling interest at the tap of a screen. This, for many, is the new face of dating. Courtships are accelerated. Active daters find more choices, but often grapple with decision paralysis. And despite constant connectivity, people seem more isolated than ever. 

[RELATED: Meet the Millennials Reshaping New Jersey]

Millennial singles have differing opinions about the pace of app-based dating. “In the past—and I’m old-school—you would court a woman,” says Huan Tran, a 31-year-old Montclair resident who works in hospital management. “Now, you meet as many people as possible and go on as many dates as possible. I’ve met a lot of really interesting people I would never have thought of interacting with.”

He acknowledges, however, that this access has its downside. “Before, you’d see someone and think they were attractive and fumble your way through making that known,” he says. “Now, you swipe right or left, read their profile, make a date … but if you don’t have that instant connection, people just write you off.” 

Hazan agrees. “On social media, you meet people you wouldn’t normally meet, but instead of focusing on one person, on connection, you’re looking for the thing that’s wrong with them. You’re constantly looking for someone better. You think, I can do better than this.”

This constant search for the next best thing leads to a number of unsavory dating behaviors. Hazan introduces me to an entire lexicon with which I am mostly unfamiliar. First there’s “ghosting,” which is when someone exits a relationship suddenly without explanation via radio silence. This I knew. There is also “mosting,” when someone comes on strong, showering you with praise, talking about the future—then disappears. Then there’s also “haunting,” when somebody ghosts you but still watches everything you’re doing online.

“Back in the day, people wouldn’t be dating so many people at once,” says Hazan. “They wouldn’t have all these options in front of them.” 

* * *

Allison Whitaker, a 35-year-old Audubon native and the author of Sometimes It Hurts: A Transgender Woman’s Journey, believes social media has destroyed relationships, although she can’t imagine dating without apps. “I can go on a date, and there are 50 other options behind that girl,” she says. “At one point, I was keeping track of different dates on different days of the week, almost like they [the women] were a number and not a person…I think social media has really destroyed the core of what a relationship is for people, because it has opened up that door to more peripheral options. If you want to have real, meaningful connections, you have to put down the phone.”

In many cases, nascent relationships never even make their way offline. Melissa, a 36-year-old manager of a nonprofit who lives in Montclair (and prefers not to give her full name), shares screenshots from the numerous conversations she’s had on apps like Bumble and OKCupid. “There are a dozen dead-end conversations in my phone,” she says, showing me endless openers that amount to just, “Hey,” “Hi,” “You’re hot,” and “What’s up?”

Melissa has a theory about the phenomena. “It’s an ego thing,” she says. “A lot of the swipe apps are like a game: Get as many matches as you can to boost your self-esteem. The swiping changed things. The gamifying changed things.” 

Economic pressure has also changed the dating lives of millennials. Many entered the workforce at the height of the economic recession, saddled with student loans and facing both a terrible job market and rising housing costs. Marriage and parenting seemed like distant promises. Millennials developed new interests. Priorities shifted. 

While she uses dating apps, Larell Scardelli prefers meeting in a more organic way. “Deep down,” she says, “I think everyone just wants to meet at Trader Joe’s.” Photo by Christopher Lane

“This generation is really busy,” says Larell Scardelli, a 27-year-old freelance content strategist living in Clifton. “Many of us have long commutes, passion projects after work, pets, friends, and we’re dedicated to fitness and health. It doesn’t leave much time for spontaneity. I see that the older singles, especially, are more protective about their lifestyles. They have a daily routine they’re happy with, which leads to expectations about how someone will fit into their world. Dating? It’s another thing to add to the list, and for some, it just doesn’t come first.”

Joe Rizzolo of Parsippany says he just wants to find “someone who can be my best friend.” Photo by Christopher Lane

While the economy and the job market are much improved, college debt and the rising cost of housing still loom as pivotal factors for millennials. Many, like Joe Rizzolo, a 31-year-old music teacher who lives in Parsippany, have moved back in with their parents or other relatives. Natalie Almonte, a 29-year-old ultrasound technician in Paterson, lives with her grandmother. When Almonte started college, her grandmother offered to let her stay rent free in an extra room until after graduation. Six years later, Almonte is still there, now paying a nominal rent.

“I was too young to think ahead,” she says. “That was my mistake. I never stepped out of that.” Almonte got a second job to help pay off her loans, but they still loom large. “These days,” she says, “it’s either the loan or a house.”

As might be expected, Almonte’s living situation has had an adverse impact on her dating life. “I want that privacy,” she says. “I want to have my own space and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come over to my house? Why don’t you stay over?’ And I can’t do that.”

And then there are those single millennials who grapple with an entirely different sort of responsibility: single motherhood. The Pew Research Center reports that millennial women make up the majority of single-mother heads of households. Hazan is one of them. “It’s hard,” she says, “because sometimes I get a text from a guy, like, ‘Let’s meet up for drinks tonight!’ I can’t. I have a daughter. I wish I could be spontaneous, but I can’t. My daughter always comes first.”

Responsibilities aside, some remain single simply because they don’t feel ready to shake up the life they’ve created for themselves by making room for someone else. “People are so ingrained in who they are, no one is really willing to modify and change themselves to meet the relational needs of someone else,” says Whitaker. “Dating in your 30s is especially hard because people go through so much crap in their 20s and become so settled in their ways that they don’t want to change for anyone anymore.”

* * *

Still, as much as new technology and economic pressures have changed the dating landscape, it appears that, underneath it all, some things haven’t changed since I (a Gen Xer) was single. Sure, there’s new terminology for the most common dating behaviors. Sure, millennials have ready access to perhaps too many dating options. Sure, many of them put off settling down. 

But people disappeared back in the day, too. People hesitated to commit, scared that they’d miss out on someone even better. As frustrated as today’s singles are by dating apps and social media, people 20 years ago dreaded relying upon something so contrived as a dating website or a singles event. Like today’s singles, they wished that they would happen upon their life partner while doing something they were passionate about; that they would feel that click of connection; that they would fall in love.

“Deep down, I think everyone just wants to meet at Trader Joe’s,” says Scardelli. Meeting in the course of your authentic life, she contends, creates a common ground.

“I’ve always wanted it to be unexpected,” says Almonte. “This generation thinks that can’t happen anymore, and things are forced. But I’m still for the unexpected happening.”

“On apps, you can be attracted to a photo,” says Hazan. “But are you attracted to them as a person?” She says she’s had more success meeting people spontaneously. “The universe is bringing you both together. There’s a natural attraction, maybe a commonality, there.”

But where will these spontaneous meetings take place? Many people I chat with mention the bar scene—while simultaneously deriding it, saying it’s not for them. And when I spend one night out in Hoboken, I can see why.

At the Ferry Man, an Irish pub just off Washington Street in Hoboken, the scene is exactly as I remember it from my early 20s. Guys slouch on barstools like discarded coats, waiting for their turn at beer pong. Women in low-slung jeans and low-cut tops belly up to the bar or cluster around high-top tables, nursing cocktails and reapplying lipstick. So what’s new? Everyone is constantly checking their phones.

I sit hunched at my own table, sipping a Brooklyn Lager, scrolling through Instagram. Later, my friends and I will get looser, whirling around as the DJ moves seamlessly from Snoop Dogg to Lizzo to the Kygo/Whitney Houston nostalgia-fueled reboot of “Higher Love.” The bartender will pour us free shots. But in that moment, glancing out the window at McSwiggan’s Pub across the street—my old haunt—I feel a strong sense of déjà vu. At the bar, a guy in a waffle-weave shirt dances alone. The music blares, too loud for conversation. People eye each other, dance, wander apart. My God, I think, nothing changes.

* * *

I decide to check out another scene, one that’s new to me. In Montclair, I meet Melissa while attending a live blues show at Montclair Brewery. Afterward, we cross Walnut Street to Egan & Sons, where we order cocktails and talk dating. The next week, we meet again in Montclair, this time at the Crosby, where a mix of younger and older professionals circle each other, dressed in suits or sequined sweaters and the full range of business casual. 

Finding that tiny spark in the middle of a crowd is still hard. Melissa shares horror stories. She once drove to Jersey City at rush hour to meet someone at Barcade, a popular craft-beer bar, only to be stood up and ghosted. Another time, she tried to buy a drink for a guy, but he turned it down and fled out the door. 

Still, she continues to put herself out there. Seeking alternatives to bars, she goes to festivals, meetups,  museum events and other activities. In the process, her life is fuller.

“There are a lot of places you can meet someone,” says Almonte. “You just really have to look. Get out of your comfort zone. There are a lot of activities going on.” She looks to meet people through yoga, meetup groups or while out dancing with friends.

Once you meet someone, the playing field is refreshingly leveled. Dating rules are being rewritten. More women feel comfortable making the next move, with some apps, like Bumble, requiring women to reach out first. Scardelli speaks of how, when she starts chatting with someone on a dating app, she’s quick to move things along. “I’m pretty forward,” she says, but acknowledges that everyone fears rejection. “Traditionally, this was a man’s burden to bear,” she says, “but I’m here for splitting that uncertainty.” 

Other dating norms—such as the assumption that the guy will pay—also feel outdated. “It’s not going to make me like someone more or less if they don’t offer to pick up the entire check,” says Scardelli. “In fact, I feel a little uncomfortable when people pay for me. I’m all about going Dutch. We both dedicated our free time to getting to know each other and eating, so it feels fair we pay equally for the experience—good or bad.” 

As for the dates themselves, people aren’t spending big bucks anyway. Scardelli likes to suggest long walks in the park with people she’s met through various dating apps. Almonte says that, for early dates, she’s gone on picnics at Palisades Interstate Park or wandered through art galleries.

While Hazan does mention several bars and restaurants in Jersey City—she recommends Dullboy for its superior cocktails and good music, the Archers or Fox & Crow for someplace cute and cozy, or South House for first dates that could go either way (you can easily slip out the back if things go south)—she likes to think outside the box. She enjoys hiking, going to the park, taking a bike ride together, seeing a show. She hates coffee dates (“You feel like you’re on a f***ing interview”) and says that doing something fun together can help people develop a connection. “I want to feel like there’s chemistry,” she says.

* * *

And as for that chemistry: What about reports that millennials are having less sex? The ones I spoke to aren’t buying it. In fact, last year Cosmopolitan released a report showing that the surveys that indicate lower sexual frequency don’t take into account the ways in which the definition of “sex” has expanded. In short: It’s no longer just about penetrative intercourse.

Even when young people are having less sex, it’s because they’re prioritizing emotional connection in their sexual relationships. Seventy-one percent of survey respondents said they were personally satisfied with the amount of sex they were having; 92 percent prized quality over quantity.

“I’m looking for a stable, long-term relationship,” says Melissa, “and I don’t want to have sex with anyone unless they’re a likely candidate to be that person. I’m not trying to date just to date. I’m trying to date so I can find someone and not have to do this anymore.”

Hazan balks at the suggestion that young people are having less sex. “I think millennials are having more sex!” she exclaims. “I think sex is becoming less and less taboo.” 

She mentions that more people are taking the time to fully explore their sexuality. “There is no right or wrong time to have sex,” she says. “I think if it’s consensual and both individuals are into it, then it’s all good. Some people feel more comfortable waiting before things get physical, while others just go with the flow. For myself, it really depends on the chemistry and how things are going. Sometimes I prefer waiting if I feel like I need time to get to know someone. Then there are times where the physical chemistry is through the roof, coupled with cocktails…well, yeah. It happens!”

Sex aside, people still seem to be looking for forever. After revealing that Atlantic City, Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Ocean City and Trenton are the cities in New Jersey with the most OkCupid users, a representative of the site also shares that most millennials in those cities want their next relationship to last the rest of their lives.

Huan Tran spent much of the past 20 years building up his professional life before he felt able to turn his attention to romantic relationships. Recently, he realized that all his friends were having babies. “I was very happy for my friends,” he says, “but then the next thought was, What about me? What am I doing? Maybe it’s time I developed that part of my life.

“I grew up wanting to be married by 25 and have a kid by 28 and settle down,” he adds. “Now, I want to find someone I can feel comfortable with, who can challenge me, who I can share experiences with.” 

Rizzolo puts it simply. “I want someone,” he says, “who can be my best friend.” 

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