It’s Friday night. You get home from a long week at work, pour yourself a glass of wine and start watching Netflix. You scroll Instagram (because watching Netflix is not enough digital stimulation these days). You see the faces of smiling people on vacation, couples getting engaged, friends gathering. You scroll to your page and view your own digitally vibrant posts from last weekend’s social outings. Instead of feeling filled, you feel empty, alone.
Well, the good news is that you are not alone. According to a recent study by YouGov of US, Millennials are the loneliest generation. In fact, 30% of Millennials report feeling lonely often, compared to Gen X (ages 40-54) at 20% and Baby Boomers (ages 55-75) at 15%.
As a 29-year old Millennial myself, reading this study set off a few alarm bells in my mind, but also got me thinking: What is loneliness? And how does that differ from “aloneness”? And, finally, why is it happening more in our generation?
Ever hear that phrase alone in a crowded room? (I live in New York City and I can say that that is literally my life). Loneliness is a feeling; aloneness is a state of being. Loneliness is the manifested feeling of a lack of authentic connection, or the lack of feeling understood. It is not necessarily the reality of not being near other people.
As Millennials, many of us use social media as a part of our everyday lives, and we were the first generation to do so. Inherently, social media creates an environment of socialness, of communicating with others. But, as research shows us, social media can be linked to depression and decreased well-being.
So maybe, in our case, the Internet is the crowded room. We’re all floating along, bumping into each other, small talking our way through this contrived reality, but not sticking to one another. The influx of opportunities for connection on social media creates the absence of it. It’s isolating and maddening and addictive at the same time. Loneliness at age 30 is feeling starving at Thanksgiving dinner but having your hands tied behind your back. The food surrounds you, assaults your senses, but it doesn’t nourish you. So close but so far.
Furthermore, being a Millennial (from age 22-37) means that you exist at the perfect intersection of this Crowded Room feeling and the Age of Questions.
Most adults in their 20s and 30s tend to make life-changing decisions about their careers, their relationships, and their life trajectory during this time. Exciting, yes. But all of this searching and deciding and finding in the early part of adulthood can be really isolating. As the Huffington Post's Carolyn Gregoire writes, “The 30s have been found to be a time of existential crises, ticking biological clocks, and heightened job dissatisfaction.”
Even though Millennial decisions are often geared towards setting up your life with others, when reality doesn’t meet your expectations, it can feel like rejection and confusion. This confusion can make you peek over the fence to see how the next person is doing, and then - voilà! - the cycle of social media isolation is exacerbated.
So, I guess when I read the study by YouGov, I wasn’t completely shocked. It confirmed my personal experience, at least.
I’ll end this observation of the loneliness struggle by saying that as a woman of 29, I don’t think there’s a way around it. I think we have to go through it to get to the other side. Should we all put our phones down and look internally more often? Sure, yes. But, I do think that loneliness is a rite of passage to later stages of life and adulthood. You have to build the internal muscle of knowing yourself to be able to navigate all of life’s challenges, and most of the time this muscle is built during your 20s and 30s.
Now, for those people reading this blog and rolling your eyes while thinking to yourself, “Oh, Millennials, with your technology and entitlement and can-do attitude, POOR YOU!” I’ll say: Yes, we are relatively young and have apps for our dog walkers and flexible work arrangements and fancy lattes -- but guess what? It’s pretty damn hard to be a HUMAN PERSON, and all generations have their version of a struggle. Have some empathy. We’re humans, too.