Our Loneliest Generation?

Answering the Kennedys Call



Much of my forthcoming book, Answering the Kennedys Call; Solutions in Public Service and Community-Building for the Future documents how we can rebuild the broken communities and sense of isolation that is afflicting so many Americans today.

One facet of broken communities is the growing sense of loneliness and unhappiness in newer generations, due in part to the dominance of social networking with smartphones, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Child Psychologist Jean Twenge says the iphone generation, those born between 1995 and 2012, are now the loneliest generation in a 2017 Atlantic Magazine article, and book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us..

“Psychologically, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Social Scientists first saw an increase in Americans’ feelings of loneliness in the 1970s—at the same time as the advent of the World Wide Web (the Internet), and the personal computer first introduced by Apple in 1976. But then it was the millennials who were the most affected, and unhappy—the children of the baby boomers.

The University of Chicago’s annual General Social Survey has also found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. “Zero” is the most common number of confidants, reported by almost a quarter of those surveyed. Likewise, the average number of people Americans feel they can talk to about “important matters” has fallen from three to two.

And the results of rising loneliness have been mixed, as the title of Twenge’s book highlights—they are somewhat slower to mature and acquire social skills to successfully negotiate adult life. There is greater social isolation as teens focus on their phones—even sleeping with them under the pillow—rather than acknowledging their physical surroundings. This especially affects their physical health; they spend less hours sleeping (averaging 7 hours vs. 9 hours needed by most teens).

“It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out,” says Twenge. “That’s something most teens used to do: nerds and jocks, poor kids and rich kids, C students and A students. The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.“

Rising levels of depression and suicides are the most alarming results from such social isolation, isolation that runs counter to our evolutionary development—when social skills were necessary for survival in that it enabled them to recognize friend from foe.

Girls have also borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys. The suicide rate is still higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are beginning to close the gap.

The Kaiser Family Foundation in conjunction with The Economist has been measuring loneliness among U.S., U.K., and Japanese citizens. More than a fifth of adults in the United States (22 percent) and the United Kingdom (23 percent) as well as one in ten adults (nine percent) in Japan say they often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others, and many of them say their loneliness has had a negative impact on various aspects of their life.

“People experiencing loneliness disproportionately report lower incomes and having a debilitating health condition or mental health conditions,” said the @KaiserFamFound/@Economist survey. “About six in ten say there is a specific cause of their loneliness, and, compared to those who are not lonely, they more often report being dissatisfied with their personal financial situation. They are also more likely to report experiencing negative life events in the past two years, such as a negative change in financial status or a serious illness or injury. Three in ten say their loneliness has led them to think about harming themselves.”

It is part of the larger breakdown of American communities studied by Robert Putnam in his ground-breaking book, Bowling Alone, the Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

This means communities must be strengthened, with more focus put on bringing neighborhoods together. One aid is with national social networks like Next Door that seeks to bring neighbors out of their homes, computers and iphones to connect and help each other with day-to-day concerns, like cleaning the streets, advertising lost and found items, or just knowing who are their neighbors.

Nextdoor’s virtual communities—that now cover more than 180,000 U.S. neighborhoods, including more than 90 percent of those in the 25 largest cities—are becoming representative of the country’s actual populations, say its San Francisco founders.

This is social networking at its best—building community again by humanizing the tech tools that have been dividing us.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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