Functional age in Online dating

Silhouette of two swans, necks forming a heart shape, signifying online datingAnyone who has at some point explored online dating will be familiar with the particular version of ageism that exists on these sites. All (presumably) online dating sites have in common that age is a prominent feature of member profiles. And, typically, people who visit these sites in order to actively search for a new partner – or just a new date – are expected to use age as one of the top criteria for selecting who they check out as a potential match. Inadvertently, this results in an implicit form of ageism that oftentimes serves neither the ones searching nor the ones hoping to be found.

Nominal age vs. Functional age

There are fundamentally two different ways of indicating age; nominal age and functional age. Your nominal age is the number that tells us how many years have passed since the day you were born, i.e. how many times planet Earth has circled the Sun since that day. This is your nominal age number, and it really doesn’t say much about you (nor about Earth), does it?

What says more about you is what we may call your functional age. Your functional age reflects how healthy you are, how full of energy you are, how you go about daily life with all that this involves – basically, how old you appear to be, based on your functioning. In other words, your functional age indicates how old you look, act, and feel – to others.

The difference between nominal age and functional age can be quite astounding sometimes. In my line of work I meet new clients every week. It is part of the procedure that they fill out a form where one of the items is their date of birth. I can have a fifty year old in the first half of the day and another fifty year old in the second half of the day, and you would never ever believe that they are the same age. One of them can appear, in every way, to be twenty years older than the other.

Some people simply grow old quicker than others. They start winding down and get ready for the retirement home, while others of the same nominal age are powering on as if their adult life has just begun.

Lifetime variations

Think about it. When we are toddlers, the difference between one compared to the other can span, perhaps, a year either way. Some 3 year olds may seem to be 2 years old, others 4 years old. Once we are teenagers, the span may be a couple of years; some 15 year olds could be taken for a 13 year old, others for a 17 year old. And as we enter adult age, the span widens further. Someone who appears to be 30 years old may be anywhere between 25 and 35. And once people reach, say, 45, the span goes ten years in each direction; they can appear to be ten years younger or ten years older.

In my observation, there is a point where the nominal age number stops providing any useful information at all, in regards to how old someone is, functionally. My mother would be a good example of this. She is (at the time of writing) 90+ years old, nominally. Yet, when she last visited a new doctor, the doctor did a double take and asked if a mistake had been made in my mother’s health record.

My mother happens to be one of these people whose functional age is well below her nominal age. She passes for 75, and lives her life accordingly; her life is full of energy and activities. And not “old person” activities either; she exercises several times a week, she teaches courses, she drives, she goes on overseas holidays, and everything else that you would expect of a healthy 75 year old. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me for a second if she one day tells me that she has taken up online dating  – naughty girl that she is.

Age self-perception

Ageing is certainly a mystery. If you have come to your mid-life, you may be aware of ageing, and yet find it difficult to relate to your nominal age number. In a way, it is like we still are the same we always were, but not. When you are a child, you may have the expectation that one day something will happen and you will begin to feel like an adult. But that never happens, does it? You just know that you technically are an adult, but don’t feel that much different in many ways.

Similarly, when you are a young adult (supposedly), you may look at mid-life adults and think that one day you will begin to feel like a mid-life adult. But that doesn’t happen either, as far as I can tell. At least not in the way we once expected it to happen. The best that I have been able to come up with, to explain to a younger adult what it feels like to be an older adult, is this; “I am exactly the same age as you are, the only difference is that I have been that age for many more years than you have.”

Skewed age self-perception

Because we are not aware of feeling older, most people also have a tendency to believe they appear younger than they actually do. Again, looking at online dating sites, so many people – men and women – are looking for a partner that is much younger than they are themselves. As if that would be the best match for both parties! But really, what matters, when it comes to matching is not how young/old we, ourselves, feel. What matters is how young/old the other reckons we are. Not just in regards to looks, but across the whole range of how we are – our functional age.

So, instead of trying to conjure up your own functional age, conduct a survey amongst the people who know you well already (also include some who don’t know you that well). Ask them for their honest opinion; “how old would you have thought I am, if you didn’t already know my age?” Of course, this will only be a meaningful exercise, if you can trust that the answers you get are honest, not just something they say to make you feel good. So you have to emphasise that you want their honest reply. Or, if you are able to set it up, let people answer that question anonymously. This should give you a pretty good idea of your functional age, as seen by others – friends, acquaintances, and semi-strangers.

My own experiment

When I went into exploring online dating, a few years ago, I started asking that question of friends and clients, of my GP and my skin doctor, of people who knew me well and people who didn’t know me so well. It was an interesting exercise. Not one single person – whether they knew me well or not – actually set my functional age as equal to my nominal age. Far from it. On average, people set my functional age as several years lower than my nominal age.

Now, please, don’t think I am in any way big noting myself here. That would simply be silly. I’m just using myself as an example, because I know the experiment and the outcome in detail. And I, honestly, don’t take credit for the outcome. You see, I really don’t believe we have that much influence on our ageing rate. Sure, we can look after ourselves, eat healthy, sleep well, exercise, and what have you. But when it comes down to it, I believe, the main factor is most likely our genetic disposition. And it appears I have inherited my mother’s slow-ageing genes, which I am grateful for. That’s all.

Ageism in society

In modern society it is generally considered unfair – and, I believe, in some situations illegal – to exclude someone from certain positions simply based on their nominal age. That would be ageism. This obviously does not apply in situations where you must meet a certain age requirement to be eligible, like drivers licensing or drinking age. The reason for this, is that it is simply too impractical to assess each individual’s maturity, even though there are clearly vast variations in that regard. There are some people who still lack the maturity to safely drive vehicles or drink alcohol, even though they have reached the required age. As there are some who are mature enough long before they reach that age.

But when it comes to job applications, for example, a person’s eligibility is expected to be based on their capacity to do the job; their skills, experience, and general functionality. To exclude someone simply based on their nominal age would be ageism. It is their functional age, in regards to the requirements of the job, that matters. And while an online dating profile is not formally a job application, there are definitely similarities; we are looking for the right person for the position, based on their ability to meet the functional requirements, not based on their nominal age.

Online dating ageism

So, when it comes to online dating, I am of the opinion that the whole emphasis on age numbers is a  mistake. The age number can be totally misleading, and people who use it as a selection criterium don’t know what they are going to find. Or more importantly, perhaps, who they are going to miss out on meeting.

I mean, if you are hoping to meet someone who is 50 years old, functionally, then you are not likely to include 65 year olds in your search range, are you? After all, you are not looking for someone who is 65, functionally. Still, the person you are looking for may be one of those people who you would never take for anything but a 50 year old, if you happened to meet them, regardless of how much you scrutinised their way of life. But you will never meet them, at least not via your online dating site, because you have excluded them from your search range!

Of course, the opposite also applies. You perform a search, looking for someone who is 50, functionally, and end up with profiles of people who happen to be of that nominal age, but go about life as if they were 35. While I could provide a detailed description of what that may mean, I choose not to do so, since I am biased in that I am definitely over 50 myself (nominally as well as functionally), and would prefer not to offend anyone who is functionally 35…

Online dating age suggestions

Here is what I would like to see on online dating sites. Instead of two digits that indicate a person’s age number as “XX”, the option could be to let people give an indication of their age as “XX+”. Or even better, allowing an entry such as “Functional age.” But that, as I pointed out previously, would only be really useful if the functional age had not been self-assessed. Nevertheless, the option could be introduced for people to use, and perhaps if the awareness increases around the difference between nominal and functional age, it gradually become useful.

Until the online dating sites realise their mistake, however, my suggestion to you, if you register on an online dating site, is to use your functional age (as assessed by other people) instead of your nominal age number. And then, in all honesty, declare in your profile that this is what you have done. At least then you are more likely to be included in searches where you belong, and will have a reasonable chance of meeting someone who is looking for someone just like you.


If you like this idea, feel free to add a link to this article in your online dating profile, if your online dating site allows links. If it doesn’t, simply suggest that people do a Google search for “Functional age in Online dating“ and this article should show up.