Credit: Nathan Pyle
I hear a lot of adult type folks talk about the way that technology is leaving us more disconnected and lonely. Most of them paint a picture of people sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, eyes glued to their phones, saying nothing and feeling utterly disconnected.
That’s one way to look at the current rise of loneliness. Maybe it rings true for some people. It doesn’t for me though, and I’m a lonely ass motherfucker. I’d like to propose some other possible reasons, specifically the reasons that I feel the most acutely in my life. Maybe technology is part of it, sure. But it’s also an easy scapegoat and one that’s been blamed a thousand times before for a thousand other societal ills.
Let’s start with a story. Yesterday I went to go get some work done at a local coffee shop. I happened to run into a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few months, and we chatted for the better part of an hour. It felt GREAT. We connected about similar interests, she told me about an interesting project that I think I’ll join in on, and we shared life updates. It was one of the types of social interactions that many adults today feel are sorely lacking, and one that some people would say are diminished by our reliance on technology.
I can tell you 100% for sure that I don’t have those kinds of interactions not because of technology but because of how neighborhoods, jobs, and families are organized.
Consider the amount of pressure that today’s young adults are under. Consider how busy these little fucks are. I work a full time job, I freelance on top of that, I’m pretty exclusively in charge of cleaning and maintaining my home, I keep up this blog and a podcast, I volunteer. It’s gotten to the point where my boss has told me I’m not allowed to volunteer for anything else. I am lucky that due to the nature of my jobs I can hit up the coffee shop once a week and work there, get out into my community, interact with other humans. The problem is that most other people my age don’t have that luxury, and on top of that we’re all incredibly spread out.
More of us are working retail jobs later into life than in the past. More of us are working multiple jobs and struggling to pay rent. More of us can’t afford housing, and move anywhere we can find a place with decent rent. Whereas my parents generation could afford to buy a house at my age, settle down, meet their neighbors, and pick an area that had a community, nearly every single one of my friends has moved once every year to two years since graduating from college as we try to afford rent.
We’re spread out, we’re run thin, and to be perfectly honest socializing is at the bottom of our priority list when we can’t afford to pay our bills. On top of all that, being social often costs money. Food, coffee, drinks, museums, activities: all of it means having transportation and extra cash.
I rely heavily on technology to remain connected, but it’s not like I don’t understand that it’s important to see other people in person. The problem is how when you’ve got limited money, when people are all spread out and working multiple jobs, when everyone has 12 side hustles happening. It’s impossible to ever actually see each other. The comic above is how 90% of my friends identify feeling right now: we want to connect with our friends, but society is not set up in a way that’s conducive to having friends.
Ok, I’m not one who’s into evolutionary psychology or all about how “if it’s natural it must be fucking great”, but humans are social animals, and our well-being is significantly impacted when we don’t have feelings of connection. For the vast majority of human history we lived in very small communities where you’d see the same people over and over, always be running into and interacting with the folks you cared about. You probably lived with a larger extended family than we do today. It’s not like I’m a revolutionary for suggesting that the nuclear family is dividing us in unnecessary ways, or that living in individual houses where we don’t walk past our friends and families every day leaves us lonely. But studies are showing that we’re more lonely than we were even 50 years ago, and a lot of people want to point at technology to explain that.
But consider that for most of the time the nuclear family has existed in its present form, one income families were typical. Division of labor based on gender was typical. Think about how much we talk about the difficulties of “having it all”. That’s because in order to be a remotely successful adult in today’s world, one job per family doesn’t cut it, so people are working multiple jobs, caring for the home, taking care of kids, and anything on top of that is icing. Is it any surprise that friends are falling to the bottom of the priority list?
I’m sure that the people who hate Millennials and their damn cell phones won’t be convinced by any of this, but I’d like to ask for a little more empathy when it comes to how challenging it is to maintain social connections in a time when expectations are high and compensation is low. Technology is easy to blame, but society wide problems with under employment, under pay, lack of affordable housing, urban sprawl, and more? Those are hard.