USA Today recently reported on a study commissioned by the Cigna insurance company which examined the impact of loneliness on health. The results are striking: young people are much more likely to report being lonely and in bad health than the elderly. The overall national loneliness score was a strikingly high 44 on a 20 to 80 point scale. But those in the 18-22 category scored 48 compared to the 72 and older group with a score of 39. The study asserts that loneliness has the same effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Even those young people who are very active on social media are just as lonely as their peers who are not. Ball State University Professor Jagidsh Khubchandani tells USA Today that he has students who tell him they have 500 “friends,” but “when they’re in need, there’s no one.”
As I read the USA Today article, I immediately thought of a letter which 91 year-old Marilyn Snow of Seattle wrote to me after my mother died last October. Marilyn wrote that my mother was a very loyal friend. She should know. Marilyn and my mother first met in 1947 when both husbands were in the same graduate school. For six years, Marilyn and her family lived three doors away. After they moved to the West Coast, my mother always wrote. If my parents planned a trip or vacation, they always thought of Marilyn or other friends they could visit on the way.
My parents always had lots of friends. The closest and oldest were young couples they met in the Jaycees in the mid 1950s. All these couples had children at the same time. We did cookouts, holidays and vacations together. For me, the highlight of Christmas Day was the open house at the Baltezar family’s home. Going to the Baltezar’s was just as exciting as opening the presents. All my parents’ friends – and their children – came.
When my parents moved to Helena, Montana, they had to leave the close network of Jaycee friends. And shortly after this move, I left to study in Germany for two years. My father later told me that my mother cried the whole day after I flew off. I knew that they would miss me. But I also knew that they would not be lonely. I was right. Their participation in the church choir, city choir, the Exchange Club, Masonic Lodge, Eastern Star, tap dancing group and model railroad club created a whole new group of friends. When my father unexpectedly died in 1997, I experienced how this large social network took care of my mother. My mother was a widow for 20 years. She was rarely lonely.
What then is the difference between my parents’ generation and the Baby Boomers and the Millennials? The Boomers and their children are far less likely to be joiners. In his famous study “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam shows that membership in civic organizations like the Kiwanis or Rotary declined by 58 percent between 1975 and 2000. There are multiple causes. For example, suburbanization and long commutes put a brake on any kind of activity. If you throw in a two-career family and extra- curricular activities for children, then many families won’t have time to join anything. It is hard to make friends when you don’t have time to meet anyone.
Although I am not sure that I can fully explain the causes of Millennial loneliness, I am certain that the rise of divorce plays an important role. No one in my parents’ circle of friends divorced. A whole bunch of couples in my circle of baby boomer friends have. I have observed how disruptive divorce is to friendships and to social networks. In our experience, divorce has resulted in the loss of contact with both partners. We have watched people move, change jobs, and leave churches after a divorce. If you are a millennial whose parents divorced, then you are probably the biggest victim of this social disruption. With this in mind, I am not entirely surprised by the number of lonely 18 – 22 year-olds. Their parents’ divorce probably destroyed whatever social network they had. My parents provided me with good role models. I am afraid that many 20 somethings never learned any of this. Not only are they lonely. They don’t know what to do about it.
[Image Credit: Public Domain]