Bridget Jones' Diary called them "singletons," 30-somethings torn between envy and disdain for their wedded counterparts, the "smug marrieds," who had built-in dates on Saturday night.
AARP recently surveyed 3,500 real-life singletons, an older crowd to be sure, but no less ambivalent about the yin and yang of dating.
They ranged in age between 40 and 69, and what they liked most about dating was having someone to share things with.
Ah, but careful there.
What they treasured most about singlehood was their very independence - not having to share their lives with someone who might muck it up.
"If I have to go to my grave single, I will," says Lori Castleman, a 40-ish Tampa advertising consultant who dates every weekend. "I'd prefer a mate, but only if it's totally right. It's nice to have my own space."
Castleman was married once, just out of college, and it ended quickly. Now "I'm older and I use my head. I don't need anybody to support me. I would like to have a best friend. But until that time, I'll make the best of it and have a great time."
The survey will be published in AARP The Magazine, which hits mailboxes in a few weeks. The age range was designed to capture the tail end of the baby boom through the bulk of recent retirees.
The results seem to reflect a few age-old truisms: Men wanted more sex than women and preferred younger partners, sometimes as young as their daughters.
Other results confirmed significant cultural shifts as baby boomers traverse middle age: Cohabitation is almost as popular as marriage. Nearly one in five dating women have partners who are at least five years younger than they are.
One finding was downright scary: Despite what they might preach to their children, this is not a condom-faithful bunch. One-third of respondents who are having sex said they rarely or never take protection against disease.
St. Petersburg real estate agent Diana Haynes, president of the singles group at Bethel Community Baptist Church, has an answer for that. It's called celibacy. Her religious beliefs reserve sex for marriage, but that hasn't prevented her from enjoying the company of interesting men.
Haynes, 50 and five years removed from divorce, said she likes going out to dinner, walking the beach and museums. One recent outing took her to a putt-putt golf course with her date's teenage grandsons.
"After being married forever, I'm finally getting to know different people," she said. "I've been so fortunate - the guys I see, they are just terrific. If things don't work out, then we just don't see each other for a while."
Companionship is a powerful motivator.
Half of all respondents listed "have someone to talk to or do things with" as the single most important reason for dating. "Have fun" came in second.
Meanwhile, "fulfill my sexual needs" was favored by only 11 percent of men and 2 percent of women.
This is not to suggest that retirees and near-retirees are prudes.
Many came of age in the 1960s, widely regarded as a watershed of sexual liberation.
Almost four-fifths of single men and three-quarters of women had either dated within the past three years or would like to date if the right person came along. Only 5 percent of men and 15 percent of women thought sex should be reserved for marriage.
Heck, every fifth man is okay with sex on the first date.
But the reality of their sexual lives is more constricted.
About 30 percent of single men and 45 percent of single women said they hadn't been kissed or hugged within the past six months. About 45 percent of men and 60 percent of women had not had intercourse.
Why are men more sexually active? Dating's infamous gender gap explains some of it.
Every other man picks a partner who is at least five years younger, the survey showed. Because younger people, in general, have more sex, voila!
About 29 percent of men were dating women at least 10 years younger, and one man in seven was dating a woman at least 15 years younger.
More and more women are pulling Demi Moores and trolling the younger set (one in five women dates a man at least five years younger.) But the age-gender gap remains strong, which not only provides men with more sexual partners but narrows the field for women in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
And some women forego sex by choice.
Though they were having less sex than men, women in the survey were more satisfied with their sex life than were men, three-fifths of whom wanted more than they were getting.
"Women, when they end up doing it, do it with more emotion. It's not just sex," said Castleman. "With more emotions involved there tends to be more satisfaction, because the other is just a quick fix, and then you need more.
"It's quality versus quantity."
Listing their frustrations about dating and romance, both men and women said the people they date too often carry "a lot of baggage."
Women's next two biggest frustrations were meeting too few new people and not knowing where to meet people.
Surprisingly, the second biggest frustration for men was "Being shy, reluctant, or self-conscious about approaching people."
"I have a hard time meeting single people that I'm interested in. That's the hardest part," said Jeff Whipple, a 46-year-old Tampa artist. "I don't like talking to strangers. I don't like to hit on women. I respect them too much."
Whipple said his best prospects come through work and social situations with friends. Thatputs him squarely in line with the AARP survey.
Respondents said they meet people through (in order): friends and relatives, work, chatting with people in malls and supermarkets, bars/nightclubs; church; hobbies; traveling; sports; community organizations, and singles organizations or the Internet.
Castleman, a former aerobics instructor, meets many of her dates at the gym.
Though she considers herself a hopeless romantic, she also notes that her longest running relationship is with her 131/2-year-old bird.
"Of course I figure the only reason he's still around is that I trim his wings and he lives in a cage."
- Times staff writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report.