What is a life without friendship? Millennials branded lonely generation

YouGov data suggests 22% of Millennials have no friends despite increased use of social media. JOANNE SAVAGE asks why

By Joanne Savage
Friday, 30th July 2021, 8:00 am
Why are Millennials a lonelier generation?
Why are Millennials a lonelier generation?

According to the a 2019 YouGov survey, 9% of Baby Boomers, 16% of Gen Xers, and an incredible 22% of Millennials report having no friends whatsoever.

Yes, those no longer young and carefree Millennials (a Financial Post article from that same year describes the generation as “hurtling into their 40s”) may be the loneliest group of all, despite all those wacky beer commercials showing herds of happy, high-fiving 30-somethings doing the conga in bikinis and togs in Hawaiian-like locales (a mass falsification of the much more solitary reality wherein this demographic is more likely to be sitting at home alone necking gin and eating blocks of cheese).

Why are Millennials so lonely? YouGov did not ask respondents to explain their loneliness, and in any case it’s a question many lonely people can’t answer. But YouGov data scientist Jamie Ballard noted in her report on the findings that other studies have decisively linked heavy social media and internet use with both loneliness and depression. She and other observers concluded that Millennials, who use both social media and the internet more frequently than their elders, are making themselves lonely in the process.

Then, let’s face it, as you approach your 40s, making friends is not as easy as it was in the playground.

Making friends in primary school is as easy as sharing your red crayon, special ruler, Sleeping Beauty pencil case or lunchtime chocolate snack with your desk mate, and even up through your university years it’s just as easy to make new friends as it is to outgrow the old ones - all night rampages, swapping lecture notes, society balls, afternoons in the Student’s Union, shared flats given to all-night benders of decadence and abandon - fraternity in our younger years is easy peasy.

Once you pass this point, however, things become vastly more complicated.
YouGov lists shyness, lack of time, and lack of opportunity as the top reasons so many of us have no social lives.

As to why the friendless factor kicks in as we hit adulthood, experts hold several theories about this.

Once we’re out of school, therapist Miriam Kirmayer says, “we’re no longer surrounded by a group of same-age peers who happen to be in a similar life stage and with whom we have things in common.” While Dr William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, points out, “Life gets a little more complicated when you’re an adult” (jobs, relationships, kids, etc.) and asks, “What time does that leave to make friends?”

For another thing, many professionals spend the years right after university hyper-focused on their careers. Also, people in their 20s and 30s are often deeply involved in romantic relationships or are raising children. (Respondents were specifically told to exclude their partners and families when answering questions about their friendships.)

So it might just be a life cycle thing. In 1990, before many Millennials were born, social psychologist Daniel Perlman undertook a meta-analysis of 14 loneliness studies with over 25,000 respondents. Even back then, before the existence of smartphones, social media, and even before internet use was widespread, he found that young adults were the likeliest to be lonely, with loneliness decreasing throughout people’s lives until they reached old age, when it increased moderately.

Or it may be popular culture setting unrealistic expectations for us. People in their 20s and 30s are invariably portrayed as very social, pictured in large groups of friends - the kind of laughing cohort of friends at dinner or assembled propping up a bar while glugging strawberry daiquiris, that make the rest of us envious. From The Big Bang Theory to Girls, we’ve been shown over and over that Millennial lives are supposed to be full of friendship. So it seems that if you’re that age cohort and you don’t eat a takeout dinner surrounded by half a dozen pals every night, you might start feeling like there’s something wrong with you. Or is there really?

Well, actually, unless you are a terrible loner psychopath with zero social skills who talks to plants alone, then probably not.

Yes, it would be nice to have more friends, especially as all of the friendship experts seem determined to bombard us with scary statistics about how lack of social connection is literally going to kill us (loneliness is linked to higher blood cortisol levels which means additional stress and a higher probability of developing mental illness, high blood pressure and other diseases; it has therefore been linked to higher mortality rates).

It seems, though, as if making new friends is going to require a lot of effort — and having a skin thicker than a rhino’s probably wouldn’t hurt much, either, given how tricky people can be and given the inescapable sting of rejection always likely to hit you from certain quarters (unless you are a millionaire movie star or supermodel, with a brilliant smile, impossible charisma, a body with zero cellulite well honed in a gym and a 50-foot yacht available 24/7 for parties off the coast of California at which you can spray each other pointlessly with thousands of pounds worth of French champagne, in which case everyone, but everyone, will want to be your chum).

It would be easiest, of course, if you still have some old friends, as YouGov says over half of us do. Still, if by “friends” you mean someone from your distant past you’ve re-connected with on social media, but that connection is limited to a few random likes once or twice a year...it might be kind of weird if you suddenly start pushing to deepen the relationship. If you’d rather start afresh, well, there are apps for that like the popular Meetup app I once joined and found myself walking up steep inclines with mostly octogenarians. Wow, such fun — all of the awkwardness of online dating while looking for a platonic connection.

As author James Clear tweeted, “Friendship happens on the way to something else.” He goes on to explain, “If you ‘try to meet new people’ it feels weird and forced. The more you aim for friendship, the more it eludes you. But if you aim to learn or achieve something with others, friendship happens naturally during the shared pursuit.”
One Lifehacker contributor very much agrees with this sentiment. She stated that joining an exercise class didn’t really net her too many new pals, since everyone was focused on their individual goals. When she joined a choir, however, she was working alongside others in pursuit of a common goal and closeness ensued.
Okay, you know all those scary stats out there meant to prove that if you don’t go out and make a bunch of new friends immediately you’ll die before you even hit retirement age and will inevitably be eaten by your pets before anyone even notices? The dangers of loneliness, it seems, may have been a bit exaggerated. A 2018 study published in the medical journal, Heart, found that when you looked at social isolation as a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and you then also took into account other factors such as study subjects’ socioeconomic background, medical history and health conditions, as well as fitness levels, then loneliness itself was found to have played a far less significant role than was previously thought to be the case (victory for introverts and the solitary indulgence of wine with an entire cheese board with chutney and olives).
According to Healthline, while ‘the norm’ may be to have close interpersonal relationships, everyone’s wired differently, and, for some, being alone may be the most desirable state. Time spent by yourself can make you more creative, fulfilled, and able to pursue your own dreams, whereas forcing yourself into ill-fitting friendships does more harm than good. Let your instincts be your guide.