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21 July 2021

Young people are the real victims of the loneliness epidemic

Though isolation is most typically considered a problem for the old, under-35s are increasingly the most friendless generation.

By Sarah Manavis

The video was tweeted with the simple caption: “This is the most depressing shit I’ve ever seen.” The clip, lifted from TikTok, was of two young men in their mid-twenties who live in Canada, speaking from a rocky river bank in the middle of an empty park. 

“Do you live in the Moncton-New Brunswick area and are looking for more friends?” the clip begins. “Well I’ve got good news for you, we’ve got two of them right here.”  

“We used to have a bigger group, but we’re looking to expand now,” one of the men said. “We’d really like to be your friend.”

On both Twitter and TikTok, the video went viral (receiving 2.2 million and 1.5 million views respectively)  initially, because people were making fun of it. The appeal for friends seemed desperate – the kind of pitiable behaviour that, even if you did want more friends, no one should ever engage in. But after 24 hours the video started to gain a new form of traction, as users hit back against the jeering. “They didn’t hide behind layers of irony; they came to us with sincerity,” one user posted. “I think that’s brave.” Many noted that this was the first time they’d seen someone publicly acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: that it’s hard for young people today to make meaningful platonic connections. 

In the past decade there has been a rise in coverage in youth media about the importance of friendship. Women’s magazines now regularly run features on the previously undervalued worth of these relationships and on under-discussed experiences such as “friendship break-ups”. Mainstream reality TV – once solely featuring “cat fights” and romance – has become more focused on friendship bonds created on screen (see: the popularity of friendships on dating shows such as Love Island). Even whole television concepts such as Broad City are adored for their celebration of these intimate connections.

But a new report from the think tank Onward released earlier this month found that under-35s are the most friendless generation living today. The number of under-35s who say they have only one or no close friends at all has more trebled in the past ten years (from seven per cent to 22 per cent). Only 40 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds say they have four or more close friends, down from 64 per cent in 2011-12.

This study isn’t the first to highlight these trends. For years, surveys have shown increasing loneliness among younger generations in the Western world, with dwindling numbers of meaningful connections and fewer casual acquaintances, too. More than any other generation, according to Onward, young people struggle to find other people trustworthy. 

Other than recognising that young people are lonely and that this is a rapidly growing problem, little has been done to answer the question of why. The presumption has long been that the internet is driving this extreme alienation – an obvious potential culprit, given the ample evidence of its negative impact on mental health. But the correlation between the rise of loneliness and young people’s ever-increasing use of the internet is not proof of causation. In fact, some argue that the internet can help people, such as the Canadian men on TikTok, make connections. Will Tanner, the director of Onward, said that there are many misconceptions about what is driving young people’s loneliness, and argues too much emphasis is placed on the impact of the internet.  

“Loneliness is not just happening because younger generations are replacing real-world friendships online – 18- to 35-year-olds are more likely to disagree than agree that ‘socialising online is as good as socialising in person’,” he said. “Nor is it because young people don’t want to put down roots: we found 18- to 35-year-olds were more likely to want to stay in their neighbourhood than [they were] in 1998.” He explained that the real drivers are the socio-economic inequalities that plague young people. “Lack of time, resources and flexibility – with longer commutes, higher housing and education costs, and little capital ownership, young people told us they do not have the time or the financial security to get involved in their communities or engage locally.” 

To address these issues, Onward recommends a number of initiatives to help integrate young people into communities, such as introducing national civic service: “A voluntary expectation that every 18- to 35-year-old should do ten days of unpaid social action each year, with time off work to do so, or undertake a paid ‘year of service’”. Others include creating government-funded social enterprise hubs, sports clubs and charities targeted at young people, as well as creating half a million reduced-rent homes for “working tenants” under 40. 

However, while these solutions may help some millennials, they largely address those young people who don’t have to worry about precarious work, inadequate housing options and unemployment. What about gig economy workers, or those stuck living with their parents after finishing school, who have poor employment options and even less capacity for building meaningful relationships? And while such schemes may be able to help new generations avoid this fate, what happens to already-isolated millennials as they creep into middle age, when people often become lonelier? How can we prevent current under-35s from becoming friendless well before their pensioner years?

The reality of being under-35 today is plainer than we might want to accept. For many, it’s incredibly difficult – a youth without security, freedom, disposable income and, as we now know, friends. But while the social alienation many young people endure is now being taken more seriously, it also continues to worsen. If we don’t urgently address it, the future may be one of extreme isolation unlike any generation has experienced before. 

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