Academic and author Rachel Simmons recently pointed out the disturbing reality that young adults are the loneliest generation in America today, and offered her take as a college staffer on what’s driving this trend.
Simmons highlighted a Cigna survey of 20,000 Americans released in May that showed that more than half of respondents from Generation Z – adults ages 18-22 – report feeling isolated and left out, with no one with which to talk.
According to the Cigna report:
In fact, more than half of Gen Zers identify with 10 of the 11 feelings associated with loneliness. Feeling like people around them are not really with them (69%), feeling shy (69%), and feeling like no one really knows them well (68%) are among the most common feelings experienced by those in the Generation Z.
Simmons, a leadership development specialist at Smith College, contends the problem stems from a changing culture in America that’s limiting face-to-face contact, a trend Simmons attributes as much to technologies like smart phones as she does to a constant and overwhelming drive for achievement.
“Indeed the problem is hardly that college students spend all their time alone and on screens. It is that they spend too much of their time with peers working: running meetings, producing plays, organizing conferences or studying. They prioritize activities that achieve goals, not meaningful connection,” Simmons wrote in The Washington Post.
“Students I have interviewed across the country fear that if they are not constantly busy studying or attending meetings, something must be wrong with them, their schedule or their work ethic. These new norms of stress culture translate to fewer opportunities to let their conversations and minds wander,” she continued.
“If anything, many young adults turn to the screen because they feel it’s the only authorized recreation in a culture of constant work. You don’t have to leave your library carrel to scroll through Instagram or take a BuzzFeed quiz.”
Julia Ticona and Chad Wellmon writing in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s journal, The Hedgehog Review warn, “In our new digital environment, our changing conceptions of friendship and intimacy are not just our own; they are manufactured, manipulated, and monetized at unprecedented scales and with unprecedented effect.” One is naive to think that there are not relational costs to being digital natives. Our technological environment matters.
Simmons contends the increased isolation and focus on work and achievement both erodes relationships and the ability of students to develop skills to make friends.
“Skills are like muscles: They need to be flexed repeatedly,” Simmons wrote. “Friend-making skills atrophy from underuse.”
Simmons concluded the Post column with several points of advice for parents of college students to help them work through the loneliness and develop more meaningful relationships.
Teachers and principals working to strengthen moral and citizenship formation in their students will find information, strategies and teacher lesson plans at the UK's The Jubilee Centre.