This essay is part of a special series of the American Project that seeks to address the crisis of loneliness during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The media is, understandably, focused on the impact of Covid-19 on older Americans. In addition to the health risks from the virus, stories like “Elders Face the Pandemic Alone” have emphasized the negative effects of social isolation on the elderly. But it is a huge mistake to overlook the impact of social distancing on younger Americans, especially those under 30. Surprising as it may be, evidence suggests that this demographic is even more lonely and isolated than older Americans.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the social needs of our nation’s Millennials and Gen Zers are barely mentioned by the mainstream media. Instead the focus has been on the foolish behavior of a handful of Gen Zers ignoring “social distancing” advisories. Outrage on social media erupted when a number of students interviewed in Florida had refused to cancel their spring break plans. One student even proclaimed that, “If I get corona, I get corona … At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying. … We’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while.” It is absolutely true that this behavior is reckless and irresponsible (that foolish student later apologized), but that doesn’t mean the nation should ignore the social and communal needs of younger Americans, who are coming of age at a time when the world is in utter chaos.
Data from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey on Community and Society indicate that younger Americans are, in fact, considerably more lonely and isolated than older Americans. For instance, 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds report feeling completely alone at least sometimes, compared to just 19 percent of 60- to 70-year-olds. And 50 percent of younger Americans said that they “sometimes” feel isolated from others, compared to an appreciably lower 30 percent of those 60 years and older.
When asked about feeling “left out,” 55 percent of younger Americans responded that they feel this way “sometimes” or “often,” compared to just 37 percent of those over 60 — an 18-point difference. Perhaps most troubling, 22 percent of younger Americans stated that they “rarely” or “never” have someone they can to turn to when in need. For older Americans, this number was just 5 percent. That statistic alone is cause for concern.
Another significant difference found in the survey was that 80 percent of older Americans said they “sometimes” or “often” feel part of a group of social intimates, compared to 65 percent of younger Americans. Similarly, 53 percent of Americans under 30 said they “sometimes” or “often” lack companionship, whereas 41 percent of those over 60 feel the same way.
The AEI survey also probed the nature of social ties and, once again, found that older Americans fare appreciably better than their younger counterparts. For example, 54 percent of those under 30 stated that it was “sometimes” or “often” the case that “no one really knows you well” — 10 points higher than those over 60. And 42 percent of younger Americans, compared to a much lower 28 percent of older Americans, affirmed that the statement “You are no longer close to anyone” was “sometimes” or “often” true. When asked “Are there people who really understand you?”, a more encouraging 68 percent of younger Americans responded affirmatively. But that figure is still meaningfully lower than the 87 percent of older Americans who responded the same way.
I should note that not all questions about loneliness revealed such large age differences. When asked whether or not one’s relationships are superficial, 49 percent of younger and 43 percent of older Americans responded “sometimes” or “often.” Not only is this fairly positive, but the difference is minor. Another example is that roughly 50 percent of both younger and older Americans said that their interests and ideas “are not shared by those around you.”
These few examples of cohort convergence notwithstanding, the survey data are unambiguous: Younger Americans feel far more isolated and disconnected than older Americans. During this time of crisis, we should be working hard to reach out to this cohort instead of attacking them. Just because it may appear that younger Americans are surrounded by friends and in touch with one another on social media does not mean that they are, in fact, meaningfully connected. The data suggest otherwise.
As a college professor who regularly meets with hundreds of students from around the nation and keeps in touch with many former students, I can tell you that younger Americans are taking a beating. Even before classes and collegiate life were suspended indefinitely, Millennials and Gen Zers were being subjected to identity politics and nasty PC cultural norms that make it challenging to be open, intellectually and emotionally, with one’s peers or to make mistakes and learn from them. Too often, virtual connections replace rather than supplement real connections. To make matters worse, younger Americans are entering adulthood in an era of extreme polarization and socio-political dysfunction with job and career prospects now in total freefall.
America cannot afford to lose this generation. It is time to reach out and connect with younger Americans, and not let the foolish behavior of a few define so many Gen Zers and Millennials. We possess the technology to connect anywhere and anytime; we should use this pandemic as an excuse to build bonds with our fellow Americans — older and younger alike.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.