Maddie Byrne wishes her life more closely resembled an episode of Friends, or at least some of her friends' Instagram stories. When her much-older coworkers ask about weekend plans, the 22-year-old customer service rep feels as if she should say that she's going on a road trip or heading to nearby New Haven, Connecticut, to go bar-hopping and meet guys. That's the cultural expectation for someone her age, she thinks, or at least what it seems like people she went to high school with are doing all the time.
"If I'm at home not doing anything on a Friday night but I go on social media and see 10 people out at bars, it feels like I'm maybe not doing what I should be doing," she said. "I'm supposed to be young and be free."
Byrne has two or three close friends who would pick her up if she broke down 45 minutes away, about five or six regular friends she goes out of her way to see, and maybe 10 to 20 acquaintances who she checks in with casually every couple of months. But she still considers herself among the 11 percent of millennials recently surveyed by YouGov who "always" feel lonely. Released last month, the YouGov report called millennials the "loneliest generation" and trumpeted some seemingly made-to-go-viral claims, like the fact that one out of five people between the ages of 23 and 35 reported having zero friends, and that 25 percent said they had no acquaintances.
When a UCLA researcher named Letitia Anne Peplau first started to medically define loneliness in the late 70s and early 80s, she gave special consideration to how the condition affected old people, and to this day the vast bulk of research into the topic is about the elderly population. But Peplau also defined loneliness as a distressing gulf between the amount of friends one wants and the amount that they actually have, a gap that young people—who feel pressured by social media and television to constantly be having fun and documenting it—feel especially acutely. That’s to say that, while YouGov's statistics seem shocking, experts say it’s normal for young people to feel isolated; "emerging adults" have long been categorically as lonely as their elders, if not more so. What’s new is that these feelings have been exacerbated by social media, and by economic and societal changes that are making it harder to form bonds with others.
As University of Winnipeg social psychologist Beverley Fehr put it: "When you're 18 or 19 years old and home alone on a Saturday night, that can be devastating. But if you're 90, it probably doesn't bother you that much."
Byrne belongs to a Discord channel literally called Lonely, part of a constellation of forums and chat rooms where people gather to get advice on how to meet people and to connect with others anonymously and without pressure. "I've been in a funk for the past month or so and not able to connect to the people around me physically," Byrne said of her reason for joining Lonely. "It seemed like talking to people online was a middle ground where I could find social connection without having to actually approach people in real life."
Although many of the people who can be found in these spaces claim that anxiety over the number of friends they feel they should have has been exacerbated by social media, geography also plays a role. In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg described in detail how isolation is baked into the suburban experiment. If you have to drive everywhere, his thinking went, you're less likely to have chance interactions or make a place like a bar or coffee shop part of your daily routine. Byrne, who has lived in the suburbs her whole life, said she has no such place where she can stop in and build community.
The modern economy also breeds loneliness. In a society where an increasing percentage of young professionals work from home, there's an absence of workplace culture, and thus opportunities for bonding. Nat, a 31-year-old from Los Angeles, says she's among the millennials with exactly zero friends or acquaintances, something she attributes to the fact that she works from home. (She’s a social media influencer and did not want her full name used because it would hurt her professional reputation.) Nat recently posted on a subreddit called r/nofriends, concerned about the fact that she hasn't been able to maintain any long-term relationships outside of her family—with the exception of an ex-boyfriend—since high school.
Although she could go shopping any day of the week as she makes her own schedule, Nat said she specifically visits the mall and Target on Sundays in the hopes that she might strike up a conversation with a 9-5er there. The shallowness of her profession means that when she networks, she's not trusting enough to make a real connection with her peers. "You have to be wary of the ones who want to use you," she said. "I don't like to be too close to anyone because people in this world use each other. They may want to be friends, sure, but they probably more likely just want to collaborate to get more followers."
Joey is a 31-year-old who works as a receptionist in Clifton, New Jersey, at a company that has between 40 and 50 employees, which should, she thinks, give her ample opportunities to make friends. She hasn't had a single one since breaking up with her fiancé, however, and now she spends all her time at home with her special-needs kid. She said making a connection is hard because she has a hard time trusting anyone with her son, but also because she used to be the life of the party and now fears people think she's boring. Joey craves a platonic connection with someone to share "experiences, memories, and secrets with," which has so far eluded her, since most people she meets end up just trying to hook up.
Fehr, the social psychologist, said that this makes sense—unmarried people are generally more lonely than those who are married. "But when researchers have differentiated between different kinds of unmarried relationships, like people who never married, widowed, or had been divorced, it became clear that what produced the most loneliness was having had that intimate relationship and then losing it."
If you charted an average person's loneliness throughout their life, you would see a spike in early adulthood, as they try to navigate society on their own for the first time. You'd also see a surge in loneliness late in life. "Once people hit their 80s and start to lose friends and partners and see the body doesn't do what they want it to do, that's where loneliness sets in again," said Ami Rokach, a Canadian researcher. But Rokach describes early-adulthood loneliness as a phase that should—should—taper off later in life.
One thing that might prove unique about the millennial generation is that its members may break the longstanding trajectory of loneliness evening out in the middle parts of life. Typically, people entering their 30s have settled upon an identity and entered into a job that fulfills social needs. “In short, people's social world often solidifies toward the end of young adulthood,” Fehr said. But with millennials reporting high levels of dissatisfaction with their jobs and their lives overall, that solidification may not be happening for many.
A woman named Chris, for instance, just celebrated her 32nd birthday. Her husband and two kids gifted her what she told VICE was a “very small cake,” though she wished that she could have gone to a concert with some friends and had some drinks instead. “How can I be this old and not have any friends?” she posted on r/nofriends.
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