Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A survey suggests young adults belong to the loneliness generation—but experts say it’s too early to call it an epidemic.
Even surrounded by fellow commuters, scanning a phone that connects you to thousands of peers, you sometimes can’t help but feel lonely. If that describes you, rest assured: You’re not alone.
In fact, in a new survey from the health insurance provider Cigna, nearly 50 percent of American respondents reported feeling socially isolated. More surprisingly, the most afflicted group in the survey wasn’t the retired or elderly, as is traditionally believed. Instead, it was young adults: Gen Z-ers—those currently between 18 and 22 years old—are the loneliest generation.
Cigna surveyed more than 20,000 American adults, ages 18 and up. The online survey included 20 questions and statements about relationships, feelings of isolation, and interactions with other people, and researchers scored responses based on UCLA’s Loneliness Scale (commonly used to measure subjective feelings of loneliness). A score between 20 and 80 indicates possible loneliness, with higher numbers signifying greater levels.
The national average loneliness score is 44, according to the survey, with just under 50 percent reporting that they sometimes or always feel alone or left out. Two in five adults feel as though they lack companionship or a meaningful relationship, and almost 60 percent say their ideas aren’t shared by those around them. When the researchers broke those numbers down by different groups, they found that the average loneliness score drops with age: Gen Z-ers and Millennials on average score 48.3 and 45.3, respectively—higher than the national average and well beyond the scores of Baby Boomers and the so-called Greatest Generation (those ages 72 and up).
But don’t rush to blame this all on social media. There isn’t really a consensus about the impact of social media on mental health of young adults, and this report finds little correlation as well. (Some studies suggest that screen time enhances in-person relationships, while others find it harmful.) “It seems like the context of each situation, and for each young person, really matters,” said Michelle Munson, a mental health expert who studies young adults at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, and who wasn’t involved in Cigna’s study.
As CityLab has reported before, the “state of solitude” affects millions across the U.S., and can make us more vulnerable to physical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. This survey doesn’t delve into why Gen Z reports feeling more isolated, but the results suggest that for all groups, isolation is linked with factors like overall health, amount of sleep, and time spent with friends and family.
Munson thinks it may also be associated with the transition into adulthood. “For a really high number of young adults, they may be getting going through their first developmental period without the structure of institutions, such as schools,” she said. “During these years they’re out on their own for the first time so this can create new challenges, in particular ones in finding new connections.”
NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of the book Going Solo, cautions against using any single study to sound the alarms or set off a moral panic about a loneliness “epidemic” among a specific group or among Americans in general. “Findings in previous studies on loneliness are all over the map, and they vary dramatically according to nature of research question and the metrics used,” he said. Klinenberg, who also isn’t involved in the study, pointed out that just a few years ago, an AARP survey found a dramatic increase in feelings of loneliness among people 45 and up.
“One of the things thats the most troublesome for people who track this issue is that different studies show that different parts of the population are experiencing these spikes,” he said. It’s unlikely that different groups would be spiking like that without some sort of specific trigger event—and there isn’t evidence that that’s happening. He also noted that loneliness isn’t always negative; sometimes it’s a productive emotion that spurs a person to seek social connection.
Munson pointed to studies that do show that it’s at least on the rise for young adults. The research field itself may be relatively new, mostly spurred by the integration of social media in our daily lives, but she said reports like the one from Cigna at least raise awareness that conversations about mental health need to go “above and beyond mental disorder” and focus on mental well-being. “There is a whole community in need of some kind of approaches for outreach and helplines, and things that are distinct and different from mental health treatment,” she said.
Cigna’s survey results don’t reveal the location of its participants, but people can feel especially isolated amongst the crowd and chaos of a bustling city. That’s why efforts like Sidewalk Talk, which provides free listening sessions, have been working with cities to address that and other mental health issues. Cities are embracing technology, reaching out to vulnerable groups via mobile texts, and leveraging the influence of peer groups.
What may be a game changer is just better mental health education in schools, said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline program at the nonprofit Mental Health Association of New York City, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Certain pressures leading to loneliness haven’t changed among young adults, he said, though the frequency of experiencing them may have. “Bullying has always occurred; prank calls used to happen but now you can do all sorts of things online that are humiliating,” he told CityLab. “Peer pressure has always occurred; being exposed to drugs, alcohol, relationship problems for the first time has always happened for young adults.” Yet not all schools adequately teach students how to manage conflict and how to deal with relationship problems, which make them more prone to withdraw from social interactions as they age.
And the lessons don’t all have to be done in class. “To the degree to which younger and older people can be brought together for specific activities, I think this can be another promising approach,” Draper said. “There is nothing that makes an older person feel more valued than being around younger people, and younger people are often amazed when they hear first-hand accounts of what the world was like.” It would serve as a reminder that loneliness affects both young and old.
“When we say mental health awareness is for all of us,” said Munson, “we are also reducing the stigma this is only for certain groups of people.”