文章

Millennials are hit the hardest by the loneliness epidemic, and here’s why

By Page Grossman

Published September 10, 2020
Last updated September 10, 2020

Millennials get a lot of flack for coming into the workplace and asking for more. They want more humanity at work, more emotional connection, and more work-life balance. More, more, more. Turns out, Millennials still need more. They need more friends.

A recent survey by Smartsheet found that “95% of Generation Z and 93% of Millennial workers report difficulty working from home as a result of COVID-19,” which is more than any other age group. Shelter-in-place orders have left many of us feeling isolated, but it would be easy to assume the younger, tech-savvy generations would feel less affected than older generations. Turns out: Millennials and Gen Z are the loneliest.

Millennials have broken social networks

Millennials feeling lonely isn’t new, but the pandemic has certainly shoved our loneliness in our faces. Working from home without the ability to socialize in person and missing out on watercooler talk with co-workers has shown Millennials just how lonely they are.

Why are Millennials so lonely? There are a few reasons.

[Related read: How to pivot in the face of change]

Living alone
Millennials and Gen Z are hitting adult milestones later in life than their older peers. They’re waiting to get married and having children when they’re older. This waiting to settle down means that some Millennials and Gen Zers are living alone, though many in the U.S. are living with their parents—and now also working remotely, without the social outlets they once enjoyed.

Working from home without the ability to socialize in person and missing out on watercooler talk with co-workers has shown Millennials just how lonely they are.

Mobility creates broken social networks
Another major factor in why younger people are more lonely is that they’re more likely to have recently moved. While technology makes it easier to stay connected, we still tend to have a proximity bias when it comes to making friends. As social creatures, we like to gather face-to-face and have impromptu hangouts. After college, many people move to new cities to pursue opportunities. This move can break existing social ties with family and friends. Making friends in a new city, especially dense cities, can be difficult.

Not only does moving break existing social networks, but there’s also a correlation between dense cities and social isolation. The built environment of cities is designed for movement and convenience, not socialization.

[Related read: Those needy Millennials. Now they want hugs, too?]

More work, less play
Time is another major hurdle when it comes to making friends. Americans work more hours than the rest of the world, leaving us miserable and with little time to socialize.

Building a friendship takes time—a 2018 study by Jeffrey A. Hall found that it takes about 90 hours to consider someone a friend. To consider someone a close friend, it takes approximately 200 hours of time spent together. While the quantity of time is important, so is the quality of time. A quick catch-up over a cocktail isn’t the same as spending an entire lazy Sunday with a friend. It takes time to cultivate, build, and nurture relationships. So when time is at a premium, we can’t maintain our current friendships, let alone find new ones.

While technology makes it easier to stay connected, we still tend to have a proximity bias when it comes to making friends. As social creatures, we like to gather face-to-face and have impromptu hangouts.

The potential pool is both smaller and more shallow
Proximity and unplanned interaction can help along friendship, which is why it can be relatively easy to make good friends throughout childhood and college. In the adult world, our pool of who we interact with on a regular basis drops down to those we work with unless we intentionally join a personal interest group or try a friendship app.

And finding friends as an adult in the digital age can look markedly like dating. If you’ve read Modern Romance or spent any amount of time on a dating app, you know that’s not easy. The “I’m so busy” culture of modern life combined with the ability to endlessly swipe, makes for a paradox of choice and no incentive to “settle” for anyone.

Why do we care?
We’ve all felt the pangs of loneliness at one time or another in our lives and know it’s no fun. But, you might be wondering, what’s the big deal? We all feel lonely sometimes.

A quick catch-up over a cocktail isn’t the same as spending an entire lazy Sunday with a friend. It takes time to cultivate, build, and nurture relationships.

Unfortunately, new research is finding that chronic loneliness is bad for our health. Loneliness can raise our cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone that’s been connected to a number of detrimental health effects such as depression, diabetes, sleep disorders, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Creating connection is important, though it’s hard to do, which is why many of us are leaning on technology.

[Related read: Stemming the loneliness epidemic one interaction at a time]

Could an app help? Maybe.

I recently spoke with Ronak Shah, the founder of Serendip, a new app that’s specifically focused on helping people make friends. Launched in May 2020 in the UK, you might think it was just serendipity that brought us such a prescient app for the pandemic times, but Serendip was more than a glimmer of an idea before the world went into lockdown.

According to Shah, there are two ways of making friends: the Tinder, swiping approach (think Bumble BFF) or interest groups (think Meetups). But, do either really work? Meh...only kind of. Because the swipe is just the first step in a long process. Even when you connect with someone based on shared interests, a true friendship requires something more, and deeper, than a shared hobby. Shah suggests: a soul connection. Which is why Serendip is all about connecting people with others who share their same core values to create a genuine connection and lifelong friendship.

Loneliness can raise our cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone that’s been connected to a number of detrimental health effects such as depression, diabetes, sleep disorders, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Before I spoke with Shah, I spent a couple of days exploring the app. I was immediately struck by how different it is from other, similar apps when setting up my profile. While it does ask for a photo, the photo takes up only a small portion of the real estate. And the app asks you to answer some tough questions.

While swiping through and matching with people, I was impressed with the care people took in filling out their profile. You’re asked to describe yourself in 3 words and then answer two ice breaker questions. These range from “The most important morals citizens should have…” to “What I enjoyed most about my childhood” to listing gratitude or causes you’re passionate about.

[Related read: From dating apps to customer relationships: we’re closer online than ever before]

Then you select a question that you want others to answer—touching on things like gratitude, worries, role models, personal experiences, and even time travel. These questions function as an instant conversation starter.

While we were talking, Shah dropped a truth bomb: “Your job description is not your self description,” reminding me how different the app felt from the awkward first introductions at a networking party. I felt like the people I was messaging on the app were honest, deep humans with whom I could connect, not just corporate titles and marketing managers.

While we were talking, Shah dropped a truth bomb: “Your job description is not your self description.”

“We ask you questions which specifically ignore and actually push aside social constructs,” says Shah. “We do not ask you questions regarding ethnicity, nationality, religion, or political alignment. Nothing like that. It’s to get to the core of who you really are and what you really value. Then, we simply connect you with people around you who resonate with your sense of reality.”

And it’s working. Shah reports that the app has one one the highest messages per conversation rate, compared to other social apps. “We’re noticing that having a daily restriction on the number of people you can discover (only 5 people per day) challenges the paradox of choice theory. You're forced to be thoughtful about each person. Judge them for who they really are and then look beyond judgement.”

[Related read: How messaging fosters strong connection—and how 4 brands use it]

Genuine connection can’t be manufactured

As anyone who has spent even the shortest amount of time online dating, a profile and picture do not make for a soul connection. Genuine connection requires vulnerability.

“It’s such a delicate process of designing and engineering a space in which you feel comfortable to be vulnerable,” says Shah. “It’s creating that trusted and safe space where you feel it’s okay to open up. And it’s actually reframing the rhetoric about friendship. Especially male friendship. This idea of bravado and not opening up about mental health and worries and struggles. We want to redefine that rhetoric. Because it’s so important to people’s mental health and well-being. It can really mean the difference for some people.”

While COVID-19 is keeping most friendships online right now, Shah and his team at Serendip are looking forward to releasing a new feature that encourages people to meet up IRL with their new app friends.

[Related read: As technology advances, we question what it means to be human]

Serendip will let you skip the conversation about zip codes and coffee or cocktails by automatically suggesting a mutually convenient, COVID-safe meet-up spot so you can explore your new friendship.

Throughout my life, I’ve been lucky enough to experience the sensation of falling in love at first sight more than once. And, I don’t mean romantically. There are those special people whom I met and immediately knew, deep down, that they were soul mate material, someone I connect with on a deeper level.

Right now, most of us are deprived of these moments, of even having the opportunity for them to occur, so perhaps we need a little help from our technology, and our friends—our future friends.

Photo credit: Cottonbro