Economists and pundits are befuddled by the decline of the UK High Street, and all the pubs and restaurant chains that have shrunk or gone bust.
Most blame high rates but I find that unconvincing. It’s hardly new.
Others point to Brexit uncertainty. While it’s true this act of gross national self-harm hasn’t helped anyone bar a few politicians, it’s surely not what’s ailing Britain’s purveyors of boozy revelry.
No, I believe it’s all about sex.
Most people over 40 have no idea just how ‘dating’ – or ‘hooking up’ – has changed since we were young.
I put both terms in quotes, because these are American imports that weren’t even really a thing in the UK 20 years ago.
Like good investing, getting horizontal in Blighty used to be simple but not easy.
Boy had a few drinks. Girl had a few drinks. Semi-drunk boys and girls met somewhere social, got off, thought “you’ll do”, and hung about until they realised they wouldn’t or they got married.
Sadly, imports have destroyed this traditional British way of life.
First there was the TV show Friends, and latterly Tinder.
Nobody is putting themselves out there
I’ll illustrate via the experiences of a friend of mine.
Let’s call him Frank.
Frank has gamed the algorithms of dating apps like Tinder and Hinge.
Looking at his profile is a glimpse into what life must be like as an Instagram model with a winning way with a bikini, or as Barack Obama on Twitter.
Frank’s profile is a long stream of Likes, Matches, and interactions. He browses them at his leisure, and engages a few in chat.
When Frank has decided he’d like to meet one, he sends them exactly the same 12-word semi-witty suggestion that he has found gets the highest positive response rate.
I know… romantic.
Needless to say all his photos have been A/B tested, too.
Furthering his odds, Frank is in the demographic sweet spot for men – early 30s, works out, decent earner, still has all his own hair.
Okay, he is probably in the foothills of the spectrum, but that doesn’t matter in the era of apps. If anything it’s a boon.
He’s interesting enough to talk to in real-life, if a bit insensitive.
Frank gets lots of traction from dating apps, that’s my point.
But it is a truth universally acknowledged since Austen that when it comes to the sexual marketplace, the grass is always greener.
We don’t serve your kind in here
Frank wants to be a real-life player, like the men he read about on dodgy Internet forums when he was a teenager.
And perhaps because I’m more than a decade older, Frank decided I’d be the perfect ‘wingman’, in the parlance of such tribes, to go out with him for non-screen mediated interactions in social venues – or, as we used to call it, “on the pull”.
Our missions are a perpetual disappointment.
Of course the truth is going on the pull was almost always hugely disappointing. So Frank is getting some authentic reality right there.
Throw in a first-generation PlayStation, Blur on a CD player, and a couple of bottles of Hooch, and Frank could be living the ’90s dream.
But as one who did live that dream, I had to inform Frank after several doomed Saturday nights that this was even worse.
Because – in short, rounding down – nobody is doing it anymore.
They’ve just stopped.
Okay, I’m sure students on campus are still getting off at the college disco or whatnot, but in everyday life, women have stopped going to pubs to meet men, and men have stopped going to look for them.
If women are in pubs now, it’s to meet and socialise, and who can blame them.
Browsing long streams of “hey!”s and/or propositions on a dating app with a hot chocolate must be a ten-fold improvement for the average woman compared to being drooled on by the least shy, most cocksure, or most drunk male on a Saturday night.
As for men, I think dating apps are a cruel place for most of us in terms of garnering the attention of women, but really it was the same back in the old days. We just didn’t have apps telling us to expect anything different.
Anyway, back to my point – most people have realised the only thing they’re likely to attract in today’s near-empty pubs is a cold.
There’s probably a broader trend here, too, informed by movements in identity politics and #metoo, perhaps.
People no longer seem to signal their status like they used to, and they have less fun with / less tolerance for it all.
In other words, they don’t flirt in most social spaces.
In the long run this is probably for the good, especially for women who can do without low-level harassment in the workplace, but still it’s easy to forget how much has changed.
Twenty years ago I worked in an office where the newest recruit – male or female – was hazed by having a bunch of framed porn photos on their desk until someone newer was hired.
I didn’t work for Hustler. It was just an office of normal media people. I don’t remember anyone thinking it was especially off.
Yikes. We’ve changed.
Goodbye to all: apps
Which brings me back to my four horseman. (Can you hear their mounts stamping at the door and braying to be heard?)
I believe the epochal shift in sexual and social dynamics – mostly due to dating apps, but with a strong supporting cast – has changed nightlife forever. (It’s probably doing much else besides.)
As I mused to Frank at the end of one of our uneventful evenings, I see four apps in particular as the riders of the Apocalypse that have spelled doom for traditional nightlife:
- Tinder – And Hinge, Bumble, Plenty of Fish, Grindr, and all the others. People no longer need to go out, spend money, and get drunk to meet to people. So they don’t.
- Netflix – …and chill. Clues in the vernacular. Even if you’re not chilling with that special someone who made it through your Tinder funnel, you’re probably bingeing on a box set rather than trying to ring fun out of a provincial nightclub.
- Deliveroo – Why get a sweaty kebab when you can have your favourite chain meal whisked from dark kitchen to your door in 30 minutes?
- WhatsApp – You don’t even need to go to the pub to drown your sorrows. Cheap beer and a group of your fellow unlucky lovers will get you through those long nights of the soul.
Now I know what you’re thinking.
There’s that pub near you that’s always busy, or you were out on Friday night in Shoreditch in London and it was rammed.
Yes, yes. There will always be a few successful pubs that are hubs for the local community, presuming we don’t transition to living in vats wearing VR headsets.
I suppose too that there will always be the very trendiest parts of town, the most Instagrammable new restaurants, and the odd capital letter Event that stokes your target demographic’s FOMO.
I’m talking about the continental landmass, not those exotic islands.
The waters are rising, and the end times are upon that old world.