A deceptive still from “You’ve Got Mail,” in which a 42-year-old man online dates an age-appropriate lady. (Warner Brothers)

Mere months after Tinder made headlines for firing its only female co-founder under very shady circumstances, everyone’s favorite hook-up app has landed itself in a hot new drama — this one relating to how Tinder treats online daters of different ages.

This week, the company rolled out a premium, paid version called “Tinder Plus,” which lets users manually change their locations and undo “swipes” that they regret. Tinder Plus isn’t cheap: It runs about $9.99  a month for most users. But for users over age 30 in the United States, and over age 28 in the U.K., the price is even steeper: from $19.99 to $22.89 a month, depending on the country.

Same service, different price points, based solely on the dating industry’s longtime Achilles heel: age.

“So that’s actual, literal, blatant ageism, right?” asked the blogger Marci Robin on xoJane. “… For the ever-more-rapidly expiring life of me, I cannot think of a justifiable reason to charge people who aren’t twenty-something twice as much.”

[Read more: The myth of the ‘female-friendly’ dating app]

Tinder has, in a rote and sort of tone deaf statement, explained the price discrepancy on purely economic grounds. After months of testing, spokeswoman Rosette Pambakian said, the company simply found that some demographics are willing to pay more money than others to receive the exact same thing. (Roughly half of Tinder’s users are between ages 18 and 24; the rest fall in that over-25 age range.)

It’s not exactly a controversial concept, and one you’re probably pretty familiar with already. It’s the reason some theaters reserve discounted tickets for patrons under 30, and why many services — including Spotify, Tinder would like you to note — offer a discounted “student” rate. Older people just have more money, right?! End of story.

Except, as bloggers and Tinder-swipers the world over have pointed out, there are some very real economic differences between online dating and music streaming. Dating is a market unto itself — a market that heavily penalizes over-30s, already. Tinder’s choice to penalize those people a second time seems exploitative, at worst — and at best, just really stupid.


The share of the dating pool that would date a 25-year-old, 35-year-old and 45-year-old. Red lines indicate men seeking women; blue lines indicate women seeking men. (OkCupid)

To explain this problem, let’s talk about the sociological realities of dating for just a second. There are a whole slew of studies devoted to human attraction, and what makes one person desirable to another, and how people navigate what my mother terms “all the fish in the sea.” This is obviously a complicated, nuanced field, with lots of individual differences. But in general, the findings on age are pretty clear. Women looking for a partner do not really care. But men looking for a partner, gay or straight, tend to favor people the same age or younger than them.

There are a few theories for why this might be: an assumption that age = life stage/maturity; some biological concerns about “ticking clocks” and that kind of thing; an inherent fixation on youth, something people have prized, across cultures, since pretty much the beginning of time.

Whatever the exact reasons, it puts single people over 30 (especially single, heterosexual women over 30) in a bit of a bind. Their dating pool has already shrunk as they aged — by as much as 80 percent, according to one study. And the 20 percent of single guys their age that remain are statistically far more likely to want a lady in her 20s. (We won’t even get into younger guys — the picture’s pretty much the same.)

According to Plenty of Fish, women are considered the most attractive at age 25. Per OkCupid, the ideal online-dating age is even lower — 21 or 22, at the high end. It’s telling, perhaps, that the actress in Tinder Plus’ first commercial claims that she can play any character in the 16- to 25-year-old range. That’s exactly what straight men are looking for; it’s all downhill from there.

This situation is not great for dating sites, needless to say, just as it’s frustrating for their 30-plus users. See, people tend to online date more when they’re a little older, a product of what sociologists call the “thin market” and what xoJane’s Robin calls “desperation.” That means a lot of people outside the “ideal” age range are joining these sites without seeing a lot of action. They’re essentially unhappy customers.

The problem is so urgent, and so severe, that several sites have spoken out against ageism in online dating in recent years. In 2010, OkCupid’s Christian Rudder wrote an entire blog post dedicated to convincing men that the 30-somethings on his site were just as cool and attractive as recent college grads. On JDate — a paid dating site for Jewish singles — the site’s official relationship blogger, Tamar Caspi, went on a full-blown rant over age.

“My friend Jenny turned 30 a few weeks ago and has found herself locked out of the dating game,” she wrote. “Her JDate profile no longer shows up on many men’s pages because their age preference ends at 29 … Why systematically reject her online before you’ve even given her a chance?”

The same question might be asked of Tinder, of course, which seems to have alienated a large portion of its user base in one fell, automated swoop. At least one popular dating blogger has called for users to boycott the app over the Tinder Plus pricing scheme. On Reddit, disgruntled users have promised to delete it and write complaints to the app stores where it’s sold.

There’s no easy solution to these bigger problems, of course: Age bias is a deeply ingrained, if unpleasant, streak in the dating game. But it might help if Tinder, at least, treated its younger and older users the same.

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