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Millennial, Gen Z are most-connected Americans, and loneliest

AUSTIN, Texas – Connor Wilton moved here for the music scene. The 24-year-old singer-guitarist “knew zero people in Austin” and felt pretty lonely at first.

One of the nation’s buzziest places, the Texas capital ranks at the top of many “best” lists. But Wilton wasn’t feeling it. He lived near the University of Texas at Austin but wasn’t a student; walking through “the social megaplex that’s UT-Austin” was intimidating, he said, with its almost 52,000 students all seemingly having fun.

“You definitely feel like you’re on the outside,” Wilton said. “It’s hard to penetrate that bubble.”

Austin’s thriving economy, rich with tech, startups and entrepreneurs, attracts millions of visitors each year – and some of those visitors move here. Apple is planning a $1 billion expansion that will make Austin the company’s largest hub outside of California. The median age here is 32.7.

But Austin also ranks among the nation’s loneliest cities.

Nearly half of the 20,000 adults surveyed nationwide by the global health service company Cigna last year reported sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. Generation Z (ages 18-22) and millennials (ages 23-37) rated themselves highest on feelings associated with loneliness.

Loneliness, with its well-documented ill effects on health, has been called an epidemic and a public health threat, especially among the elderly. But analysts are now learning that the always connected social media mavens in the country’s younger generations are also dealing with it.

University of Delaware professor Dawn Fallik is writing a book on the subject.

“Younger people are genuinely surprised to ever feel lonely and are really overwhelmed by it,” she said.

More: Young Americans are the loneliest, surprising study from Cigna shows

Voices: As a loneliness epidemic rages, I’ve learned you’re only as sick as your secrets

Fallik and Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, are scheduled to speak on “Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends” Friday at Austin’s South by Southwest Conference.

The close look at loneliness among techno-connected young people drew so many registrants that SXSW has added a repeat session.

“They’ve been surrounded by conversation their whole lives, so when that silence happens, they have a hard time just being in it and they take it that there’s something wrong,” Fallik said.

Holt-Lunstad directs Brigham Young’s Social Connections and Health Research Laboratory.

“The question that remains is, is this just a developmental stage, or is there something different about this younger generation that hasn’t been true of younger adults in previous generations?” she said.

Holt-Lunstad said research “does suggest this generation of adolescents is indeed lonelier than previous generations.” She cited the work of San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge.

Fallik said young adults might think more about their own loneliness. They might be prompted by celebrities focusing their attention on being lonely, as Lady Gaga did in a 2017 documentary.

Daniel Russell, a professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, said the difference between how many close friends you’d like to have and how many fewer you actually have might create feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

He’s working on a study about the relationship between social support and loneliness. It includes a review of 200 studies and suggests the quality of the relationships might be more significant than the quantity.

“What you see is that some people say they are lonely yet report a lot of close friends,” he said. “Arguably, they’re not socially isolated.”

Russell said studies about the effects of social media have found “virtually no relationship between loneliness and social media.”

“What struck me about the Cigna data is they weren’t finding very strong relationships [between loneliness and social media] either — that it was not statistically significant with 20,000 participants,” he said.

Holt-Lunstad suggests examining how millennials and Generation Z use social media.

“It could be used to connect with others in a way that facilitates getting together, and that could be very positive,” she said. “But scrolling through someone’s feed or social comparisons might be negative.”

In the Cigna study, Generation Z had the highest score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the standard measurement for loneliness research.

Its 17 regional surveys found that 60 percent of Austinites reported loneliness. The national number was 54 percent.

Sixty percent of respondents said they sometimes or often feel no one knows them well.

One reason for such feelings could be the city’s rapid population growth. Austin has welcomed an average of 152 newcomers a day since 2010, according to an Austin Chamber analysis of U.S. Census data released two weeks ago.

“It’s a super-transient city,” Elliot Meade said.

The 27-year-old moved from New York City in August to work in finance.

“The first couple of months were challenging, but I say that in the context of never having moved to a place where I never had roots before,” he said.

“I live alone. I would have probably preferred to have roommates. I didn’t know anyone, and I did not want to roll the dice on a stranger. I had to go out of my way to be social and find common ground and build relationships.”

Unlike young workers of older generations, young adults now are less likely to join professional associations, Rotary Clubs or other groups to meet peers. And the organizations don’t provide the value of connections and resources they once did now that people can find everything they need with a click.

“What comes up over and over again is how scary it is for them to reach out,” Fallik said. “We have lost those social skills when somebody is sick and you bring them soup or somebody died and you have that visit.

“We’ve lost that ability to have those talks, and because we don’t have that now, my students are terrified at those conversations where you’re looking them in the eye.”

David Stillman, an author who writes and speaks on generational differences, said moving to a new place is a life transition that’s daunting no matter the age.

“Anyone moving to a new place is in transition and is going to conjure up lonely feelings,” he said. “I think about my 81-year-old mother-in-law who moved from Florida to Minneapolis. The first few months, she had massive loneliness.

“I’m not sure if that’s any different from my nephew who went to the University of Michigan in the fall as a freshman and the first few weeks was a little lonely.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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