How Old Is Too Old? How Young Is Too Young?

Emily Heist Moss looks at dating from the perspective of age brackets, internet formulas and life stage compatibility.

Over the years, the cast of The Girls Next Door, Sex and the City characters, Ashton Kutcher, and members of Congress with penchants for teenagers have tried to answer two questions: How old is too old? How young is too young?

It’s such a topic of conversation that we’ve created a whole lexicon to describe these “May December” romances–see? Even I’m using the lingo—with websites devoted to facilitating them, porn devoted to fetishizing them, and fake and “real” reality shows (30 Rock‘s “Milf Island,” anyone?) mocking them. We speculate endlessly about 51-year-old actor Doug Hutchison’s wedding to 16-year-old aspiring Real Housewife Courtney Stodden. I think, I hope, it’s safe to assume that most of us find a 35-year gap extreme. Where do we regular people, not the cradle-robbers, cougar-hunters and Hugh Hefners of the world, actually draw the lines?

I am 23 and I’m officially over the hill, or so mounting evidence would suggest. OkTrends, the outstanding analysis blog of online matchmaking site OkCupid, has demonstrated with brutal clarity that for women dating online, it’s downhill from here. At 21, we’re at the statistical height of our appeal, desirable to men of all ages, sought after, and buried under a barrage of adoring messages. The wave crests, and a long slide begins. At 26, men suddenly win the numerical upper hand and after 30, well… god help you. You might as well start buying cats.

So how do you strike while the iron is hot? What parameters represent good judgment and what parameters just indicate a fixation with age or status? Apparently, internet lore says there’s a rule for this sort of thing:

If you’re a man: Halve your age, add seven. This is the minimum age of your would-be lady friends. (Example, 28-year-old guy: 28/2 = 14. 14 + 7 = 21)

If you’re a woman: Subtract seven from your age, double the answer. This is the maximum age of your prospective pool of men. (Example, I’m 23. 23 – 7 = 16. 16 x 2 = 32.)


This would suggest that women can only date up, and men can only date down, and that gay people don’t exist. You could remove the gendered notation and make it more politically correct, but a mathematical equation is hardly the best way to measure compatibility. I’ve been on a lot of dates of late, and in spite of the wide parameters I think I want, and the results of that flimsy formula, I’ve found that my “sweet spot” was smaller than I thought.

At 23, dating young is complicated by that pesky “college” business. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled you’re educating yourself; I just think it might be hard to date you right now. I wake up at 7:30 and work at a desk all day. I buy vegetables and change my sheets on a reasonably regular basis. Sometimes, I even want to talk about work, which means waxing poetic about PowerPoint shortcuts and Excel functions. If you’re anything remotely like a typical college student, you sleep until noon, study until 2am, eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch at least once a day, and spend your weekends drunk, furiously writing a paper about Kant, or both. I’m not sure we’re on the same wavelength just yet. Hang tight.


And if you’re 32, well, we may match up more closely, both being of legal drinking age, but I still anticipate some problems. You’ve been in the work world ten times longer than I have. I will rave about my newly discovered professionalism, and you will laugh at how clearly my stories scream, “I am a new adult!” At 32, chances are you’re looking to settle down. At the very least, you don’t spiral into a tornado of anxiety at the words “settle down.” I’m happy for you, but I’m not there yet. If you’re 32 and you don’t want to settle down, that’s fine. I worry that you’re trying to relive your glory days vicariously through me, but as long as we avoid too much frat house nostalgia, we might just be okay.

It’s about life stage compatibility, and that isn’t easy to bottle or quantify (no matter what OkCupid says). I’m not looking for a life partner, and I’m not looking for a one-night-stand. I’m looking for someone that recognizes, and maybe even sympathizes, with this “new adulthood” thing I’m trying on. I’m occupied by learning how to take care of myself, metaphorically and literally, and it’s frequently epically self-indulgent. A 20-year-old worrying about his ramen consumption probably won’t relate to half of that battle, and a thirtysomething may be too far past it to appreciate this phase. Are there exceptions to these stereotypes? Of course, and to them, I say… call me!
Scanning the inventory of relationships of older friends and family, I see the proverbial May Decembers everywhere, and in both directions. Each and every one of those relationships began somehow, and chances are one or both partners wondered if the age gap was too much to bridge. I don’t possess a checklist, but I do hope that I possess the awareness to recognize the people that speak my language and understand my station in life, whether they fit my “brackets” or not.

photo by katinalynn on flickr

About Emily Heist Moss

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works at a tech start-up. She's a serious reader and a semi-pro TV buff. She writes about gender, media, and politics at her blog, Rosie Says. (Follow her: @rosiesaysblog, find Rosie Says on Facebook). 


  1. Chidozie Willie says:

    So if your 14 your in pretty bad shape

  2. Well if you have 5 years gap, just wait till you age 25 to date 20 y/o i guess still acceptable..if 6years gap then wait till 20y/o as well..if your age gap with your woman is 8 years, then wait her till 22 and you are 30..well maybe that’s too i guess 5 to 6 years gap is still fine..

  3. As a 40-something guy I have to say I like the 1/2 +7 formula…it seems about right to me,,,as much as I find 20-something women attractive, I’m not comfortable with anyone under 30.

  4. AnonymousDog says:

    Any woman whose kids are anywhere near the same age as mine is about the right age for me.

  5. I’m 24. My girlfriend is 29. I think there’s something exiciting about dating an older woman without all the baggage. She never had kids and never got married or engaged.

  6. Ultimately, I don’t think that using math or other such forms of “romance calculus” is really going to result in a satisfying relationship.

    Sure someone might look good on paper–the right age, right height, right career, right car, etc.–but what ultimately matters if whether or not you can be happy with them.

    Ultimately age is just a number. I’m dangerously close to 30, but I still feel like I’m just starting my own adult life (mostly due to a dramatic career change) and I still do eat ramen from time to time 🙂

    It’s important to not just look at the external qualities of a person, and to remember to look at them as a complete and whole human being with their own unique experiences of life.

  7. A nice 5+/5- range works well if you are over 25. Each year under that subtract a year, ie. 24 is 5+/4-, 23 is 5+/3-.

    Once you hit fifty though, I think you can expand it to 10+/10-. Because by then people are pretty much set. What is the difference between 70 and 80? Both are old as dirt.

  8. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Let’s say my formula number is 40. (It is.) I sould be able to subtract ages as follows:

    Every five points of IQ – 1 year
    Degrees past BA – 5 years for each
    Jewish – 5 years
    Born under fixed astrological sign – 5 years
    Every five sexual partners – 1 year

    • Henry Vandenburgh says:

      Number of ear piercings more than 1 – 1 year each
      Knows foreign language – 2 years for each one
      Fathers income over $200,000 – 1 year for every $100,000 added



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