Millennials, it’s said, don’t date.

They hang out in groups. They hook up. If they want to meet someone, they rely on sites like Tinder instead of a chance meeting. And if they happen to find someone they like and start going out together, they’ll say they’re “talking,” not “dating.”

But even though they’re not exchanging high school rings or sharing a malt at the neighborhood soda fountain, millennials do indeed date. It’s just looks a little different than it used to.

Dating, for those Americans ages 18 to 29, is more casual, less defined and often less serious, at least until some of the big challenges of young adulthood — getting through school, landing a job — have been met.

In addition, millennials tend to wait longer than their parents or grandparents did to enter into serious relationships and marry. According to the Pew Research Center, only one in five millennials is married and one in eight is married with children. That’s significantly fewer than the number of married Gen Xers and about half of the baby boomers who were married when they were the same age.

Waiting, however, is not necessarily a bad thing, said Carol Bruess, director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas.

“They’re figuring out other parts of their life first, like their career and sense of self.”

Millennials tend to socialize in groups, large or small. If they develop an attraction, a couple will likely not consider each other boyfriend or girlfriend for months or longer. It’s not until they go “Facebook Official,” by changing their status to “In a Relationship,” that they are deemed to be dating.

University of Minnesota sophomore Monica Delgado is in a relationship. She and her boyfriend, who is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, have officially been dating for more than a year. A firm believer in the practice, she brushes off concerns others her age voice about spending time and energy on building a relationship.

“Some people have this idea that if you have a defined relationship, you’re committing too much time,” she said. “But in reality, that time is cultivating a strong cheerleader for you. And you get to be someone else’s cheerleader. That’s so much more mutually beneficial than time you could have had anywhere else.”

Bruess agrees. Dating throughout young adulthood, even for short periods, helps prepare people for long-term relationships later in life, she said. Not only does it reinforce empathy and the ability to commit, but it’s also one of the best ways to learn how to deal with conflict.

“They’re learning for the first time how to really love someone,” she said. “It’s the first time they see themselves in a relationship outside friends or family. It’s a very profound experience.”

Dating through the decades

That profound experience can take many forms, however. What constitutes dating isn’t fixed; it’s constantly evolving, changing with each successive generation.

In fact, “dating as a social practice isn’t that old,” said Kathleen Hull, a University of Minnesota professor who teaches a class called “Love, Sex and Marriage.”

Formal courting — with marriage as the end goal — was common in the 1920s and ’30s, she explained. It wasn’t until the ’50s that dating evolved as a fun outing where couples could hold hands at the movie theater or roller rink.

In some ways, millennials have taken the casualness one step further. They may be doing so because they’re making more intentional choices about the relationships they have, said Buress. Those who do become a Facebook Official couple do so on purpose.

Dana Strachan is a busy graphic design major at the University of Minnesota who is dating. To make time for each other, she and her boyfriend do their homework together.

For Strachan, dating is not dead for millennials.

“I know people say that a lot, but it’s just different,” she said. “People always talk about how we want old-fashioned dating back, but times change. It’s still there. It’s whatever you make it.”
 

Madison Bloomquist is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.