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The missing generation looks for love For twenty- and thirtysomethings, it's tough to find a date

But why don't you have a boyfriend?" They tilt and scratch their heads. They all ask the same question, regardless of their age, gender or relationship to me. And I am forced to smile while biting my lip, rather than say, "If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn't be single, would I?" A few brave souls trudge on with, "But I think I know someone who would be perfect for you."

And like the cheerleader I never was, I smile, smile, smile; then I nod.

I am no Evil Knievel. I've never considered myself a great risk-taker. Yet, some of my peers compare my willingness to being "fixed up" with driving backwards on the 33 in a snowstorm. I call them blind dates, and I didn't always agree to them. However, as my tastes and I mature, Darwin demands we become extroverts. So I let friends, family and sometimes strangers fix me up with someone they know, claim to know, or don't really know at all. After all, my parents met on a blind date. And there's a more sobering reason to go along: Like many of my peers, I am a single woman in a married town.

I am 26. I belong to the generation of twenty- and thirtysomething professionals who are visibly absent from Western New York: the missing generation. We're not all missing. Many twenty- and thirtysomethings succeed here; however, those who do are far outnumbered by their peers who are working and playing elsewhere.

Those who choose to stay in Buffalo acutely feel the absence of their peers. How could they not? The disproportion is no longer limited to the intangible, like the economics of a shrinking tax base; it has crept into the most personal arena of their lives: their ability to date and eventually, meet a potential mate.

The missing generation haunts more than the dating scene in Buffalo.

"The loss of our educated youth is the loss of a vital natural resource," says Chris Jacobs, a member of the Buffalo Board of Education and owner of Avalon Development Company, active in redeveloping Main Street. "It is this component of society that will create new businesses and reinvest in our community."

Compounding the problem is the fact that twenty- and thirtysomething Buffalo expatriates are well aware that many of their peers no longer live here. Jacobs, in his late 30s, finds his contemporaries returning to Western New York. But those born a decade after him are not. "Many young people say they won't move home because there are no young people here," he says. "It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

In terms of sheer numbers, twenty- and thirtysomethings looking for the right companion in Buffalo are finding the pickings slim.

> Work, the Bar Scene and Lower Standards

The missing generation stings Phil Merrilees, a 28-year-old suburban school teacher who lives in Buffalo.

"When I go out," says Merrilees, "generally people are much younger or much older than me."

His contemporaries agree. Kelly, a 32-year-old Buffalo attorney who prefers not to give her full name, doesn't meet too many new people. (Understandably, many of those in this story asked that their full names not be disclosed.) On the rare occasion Kelly does meet someone, "most are over 40, professionals."

Christine, 36, is a sales professional living in Amherst. When visiting a friend in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, she was blown away by the difference between the singles scenes in the two cities.

"It isn't like you go out in D.C. to the Friday night fish fry hot spot and see three-quarters of the place filled with married couples over 50, like here," Christine says. "You go out at night, and there are young professionals everywhere."

Still think this isn't a problem? Listen to what Phil, Kelly and Christine say when asked what their friends think about the dating scene: Most of my friends are married, they all answer. The rest live out of town.

Jeff and Mike feel the impact of Buffalo's missing generation every day. They are tall, good-looking guys who played basketball in college. They have MBAs. They work in finance. Both in their 20s, they're the kind of men you'd feel comfortable bringing home to meet Mom and Dad, and at the same time could keep you laughing. We're sitting at a supermarket cafe, talking about the frustrating dating scene. And we unanimously acknowledge that - except for a toddler - we're the youngest people in the room.

Located in a high-traffic area around the block from a number of corporate offices, this cafe is crowded, but not with lunching young professionals. It's a familiar scene to singles; most agree it's nearly impossible to meet potential dates living their day-to-day lives. So if twenty- and thirtysomethings can't meet or even see people their age at lunch or in the course of a normal day, where do they meet people?

"In bigger cities like Chicago, New York and Boston, people meet people at work," says Mike. "And in Buffalo we don't really have that option."

Jeff nods: "The people I work with are middle-aged and married."

Carolyn, a 26-year-old advertising professional who lives in Buffalo, agrees. Because she works primarily with women, she has to meet potential dates in other social settings.

"The last three men I dated, I met at a bar, the same bar," she says. "Obviously, I need to stop going there because, as you see, they are all ex's."

Chris, 27, a graduate student who lives in Allentown and is currently in a relationship, says he was "traumatized" by his single years. Chris compares the ritual of meeting a potential mate in a bar to net fishing; it's inherently problematic. He thinks singles would be better off if they could talk, "rather than ogle one another drunkenly until one manages to get the other's phone number, only to find out they have as much in common as apples and penguins."

Jeff and Mike agree with Chris. Finding quality people with similar values is unlikely, particularly in a bar. They both grudgingly agree that the bleakness of the Western New York dating landscape forced them to compromise their standards.

They're not alone. Many twenty- and thirtysomethings admit to dating people out of sheer boredom or total exasperation.

"I dated someone who was fun, but who I knew didn't share my values or goals," says Mike. "Would I have dated her if I lived in a place where there are more single professional women? Probably not."

For many singles, the prospect of another night at the local watering hole or spending the five-month-long winter alone drives them to settle for someone they know isn't a good fit. Just how powerful is the temptation to settle for a completely mismatched mate to stave off loneliness?

"Winter's cold in Buffalo," says Jeff.

Carolyn agrees that her out-of-town friends celebrate the greater selection, but they also are more careful. "They don't have the two degrees of separation like you have here." Some singles agree when it comes to researching a date or a new beau, Buffalo's smallness makes a Google name search unnecessary.

Yet, many in this dating group deem Buffalo's smallness its No. 2 problem, right behind the economy.

"The greatest thing about Buffalo is that you know everyone," says Anne, a 29-year-old banker who lives in Buffalo. "The worst thing about Buffalo is that you know everyone, everything about them and probably have a friend or two that's dated them in the past."

Close ties can inhibit, and the interconnectedness of a community like Western New York can discourage people from taking risks.

Todd, a 36-year-old professional, acknowledges that Buffalo's demo-graphics pale in comparison to other cities that are magnets for young people. He meets people easily in such places. And that encourages taking some chances.

"As a visitor to some other place," he says, "you really don't have to deal with any long-term social repercussions that come with taking risks."

That's a common refrain around here. Repercussions, like the gossip mill, are deterrents to being more aggressive on the dating scene.

> Techniques and Strategies

So what's a desirable twenty- or thirtysomething to do? The first step is admitting the problem. The next is understanding we're not alone. Singles in other cities also find the dating scene rough, for a variety of reasons.

"It doesn't matter where you live," says Nancy Kirsch, senior vice president of It's Just Lunch, a service that arranges lunch or cocktail dates. "If you are a busy professional who doesn't do the bar scene or doesn't want to date clients or colleagues, it's difficult to meet people."

Knowing you're not alone is a comfort. And consider this a crucial survival tool: Nontraditional approaches to dating are essential. Something as simple and controllable as taking more risks can seriously improve your chances of meeting Mr. or Ms. Right. I'm not talking about skydiving without a parachute. I'm talking about chatting up someone in the coffee shop line or asking your sister's friend out for a drink.

Kelly, the thirtysomething attorney who finds it difficult to meet someone her own age, thinks the local dating landscape would look different if people were more willing to step outside their comfort zones.

"Too often people are not willing to jeopardize relationships by asking a friend's brother, sister, or friend out on a date," she says. "I think people should not necessarily worry about the potential conse-quences if the relationship doesn't work out."

Attitude is also essential. Relationships often don't work out. Accepting that reality can make riding the singles wave much easier. That awareness makes risk, rejection and unusual approaches more acceptable.

The other good news is it's never been a better time to tap into the hip nontraditional market. Resources like It's Just Lunch, match.com, eHarmony.com and speed-dating are undeniably popular with young singles, including those in Buffalo.

"I knew I wasn't going to meet my husband in a bar," says Sarah English, a school teacher from Buffalo. "I decided I couldn't rely on my friends who were married to set me up, nor did I want to."

Once she recognized the responsibility of meeting someone rested squarely on her shoulders, she turned to match.com, an online dating service.

"You can either sit home and feel sorry for yourself," English says, "or you can take charge."

About seven dates later, she met Ken, an engineer who had spent much of his early 20s pursuing a doctorate rather than dating.

"Even though Ken and I have very similar interests, we weren't traveling in the same circles," says English.

Although nontraditional approaches still feel taboo to some, they remain the best remedy to the ailing dating scene. We cannot change the economics, politics or demographics of Western New York overnight. But we can improve the odds we'll have company while Buffalo tries to reclaims its missing generation.

Like regional revitalization, dating in Western New York requires that same mix of technology, invest-ment, risk and self-motivation.

Mike is like many of us. He knows he will keep trying to meet the right person, despite his frustrations. "Oh, she's out there," he says. "I may have to run into her with my car, but she's out there somewhere."

So if you're like Mike, get in your car. If you're more like Sarah and Ken, pull out your laptop and dust off the keyboard. If you prefer a licensed middleman, give a matchmaking organization like It's Just Lunch a ring.

And if you're like me, smile and say yes to anyone who knows someone who knows someone who would be perfect for you.

Norah Collard is a Western New York-based freelance writer. In solidarity with her sources who preferred to use only their first names, Collard asked that her image be partially masked for this article.

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