Opinion

The crisis of American loneliness

A recent survey paints a bleak picture of modern America

Loneliness.

"You maniacs. You blew it up." How else should we respond to a story about how the most relentlessly communicative generation in the history of the world feels all alone?

According to a recent YouGov survey, some 30 percent of American millennials say that they are "lonely." More than 20 percent report that they have no friends; a quarter claim to have no close ones. Many even insist that they have no "acquaintances," which should, one hopes, be impossible. But I wonder. For even younger people, in so-called "Generation Z," the figures are even bleaker.

We can make facile jokes about avocado toast and baristas with degrees in cultural studies who spend more time on Instagram than they do in real-life conversations with non-customers. There may be a bit of truth in these caricatures. But I'm not sure we should find them amusing.

"We don't quite know why this is happening," a psychologist who has studied the problem of loneliness in Germany tells Vox. Of course she doesn't. Even pretending to would violate roughly 7,500 norms of her profession. Thankfully the rest of us have eyes and ears and mouths.

We should investigate language first. One of the most interesting phrases I come across whenever I talk with city-dwelling professionals my own age is "work friends." The qualifier is there presumably because our coworkers, the people with whom many of us spend the majority of our time, are just interchangeable units — warm bodies who are good for a joke in front of the Keurig or a few drinks at the monthly office happy hour, but not the kind of people who help you move into your new apartment or know who your parents are. A bizarre process of auto-sorting seems to preclude the possibility of these relationships becoming anything else. No wonder we pretend pets are people.

But it would be a mistake to pretend that a phenomenon as pervasive as this one is restricted to unmarried urbanites. There cannot be many Americans lonelier in their way than, for example, stay-at-home mothers in rural and suburban America. Here too we see euphemisms. My wife talks about "mom friends," random women she and others like her meet at chance encounters in parks or libraries or coffee shops — any place where women might go with their children during the day, clinging to one another for sympathy, encouragement, advice, a hug, all the things sisters and mothers-in-law and neighbors provided in a bygone era of community. But at least parents and children have one another at home.

Others are not so lucky. In addition to having done almost everything we can to make raising a family unaffordable in this country, we have tried our very hardest to make the prospect seem horrifying, especially for expectant mothers. No coffee, we tell pregnant women, and no tea; no wine or beer, no cured meats — no anything. Don't move much either. Sit around like a lump for 10 months. When you're done you can dump the kid in daycare or sit around the house talking to yourself. With any luck, in 10 years you'll get to spend every weekend of your life paying thousands of dollars for her to play soccer against the children of other professionals in an expensive travel league.

It is increasingly difficult to think of a single area in which we have made worthwhile social or economic progress in the last 30 years. Housing is impossible in most major metropolitan areas. We are apparently less judgmental, though a visit to the gym, practically the only thing resembling a common space most Americans have in their lives, might suggest otherwise. Race relations are arguably worse than they were half a century ago, when they were bad but seemingly trending upward. We are fatter and more poorly educated. We cannot concentrate on anything. We don't go anywhere, not even to buy food or diapers. Our clothing is made of plastic, and so, increasingly, are our oceans. The richer we happen to be, the less likely we are to take time off to enjoy ourselves, despite generous vacation allowances. The poorer we are, the more likely we are to kill ourselves with drugs, alcohol, and guns. Even fornication is boring — we have porn for that. We have no hobbies, nothing to look forward to except the daily grind of work and the somatic glow of our devices.

For a long time it was possible to say that Americans had an economy in lieu of a society. Financialization and automation could spell the end of the former soon enough. What will be left?

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