Tuesday, August 27, 2019


I always feel sorry whenever I hear about anyone who is lonely.  We have all experienced it, sometimes for extended periods. Reading that an entire generation or two might be more likely to feel lonely is discouraging.

I am always suspicious of statistics about entire age-groups.  Not only are the boundary lines fuzzy, but they always involve trends and percentages, not either-ors. If Boomers check some box 40% of the time and it steadily lessens until Gen Z only checks it 25% of the time, that may be significant and worth looking at,  But it means you shouldn't be drawing a conclusion about any individual you are meeting fresh, nor even about the generation as a whole.  Some key word in the question might have a different meaning. The difference may reflect their current age more than their generation.  That is, those same Gen Z'ers might also check that box 40% of the time forty years from now.

I found it interesting that "transparency" was considered an important value.  That word would not have been used in a survey forty years ago, and "authenticity," which I suspect is related, would have been less likely as well. Do they mean "candor?"  Are they used here as opposite words to what people are really thinking, signifying "not a fake, not a hypocrite?" Both could also serve as excuses for people who want to tell others off, or do whatever they want and not be criticised, like the NBA player who said he was a Christian because "No one but God can judge me." Is openly being a jerk transparency or authenticity?

The article ties it to social media, and few of us doubt that has some effects on personality at this point.  At my son's 40th birthday party I was admiring my brother across the room, watching him talk to others, just enjoying that before going over to greet him. I mentioned softly to another son how much I enjoyed "just watching him."  He mentioned after a minute or so that I could not have said that five years ago.  It's true, and part of that has been going off Facebook, so I don't see his comments anymore.  We can get over things that annoy us more easily when new annoyances are not added to them.  Decades ago a friend shook his head when talking about difficulties with a tenant, "It's easier to forgive people if they stop sinning against you."

Are the effects permanent? Once they are part of our development, are we changed forever?The internet in general has made discourse less formal. Blogging and personal websites have increased the number of people sharing their opinions to a group.  I was 52 when I started blogging, already well into middle-age, and had commented and participated on other sites before that.  I find differences in myself related to frequent expression of my opinions and interests since that time.  I can't be the only one, and it is hard to see how such self-expression would have less effect on those a generation or two younger. We guess at what the changes are among those who grew up with their own camera phones in their hand, but I don't think there is much solid evidence yet.

Think for a moment about the different lives of the past, of children who grew up on the prairie, or in a London slum, or in a peasant village.  Those are hard enough to get our heads around, never mind the remoter lives of hunter-gatherers, nomads, or slaves. Some of those had constant human interaction, some had very little.


Sam L. said...

I don't do Facebook or Twitter. I guess that makes me an anti-social-media person.

Thos. said...

Forgive me if I ramble tangentially for a moment.

I recently skimmed an article where a Chinese student talked about things that surprised him once he came to America. One of these was how much more important family was to the Chinese than it was to Americans.

I had two responses to that. First was "duh, filial piety has been a big part of their culture for several thousand years, of course family is important to them."

But then, I thought about one of my grad school classmates who was from China. She told us about her family one day and after she listed ALL of her uncles, aunts, cousins nieces and nephews, grandparents, etc, I thought to myself, that's barely more than a dozen people; Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house - even if only half of the children and grandchildren are able to come - is still at least TWICE as large as any family gathering she's ever been to. I still can't ever think about that classmate without feeling just a little bit of loneliness-by-proxy.

I know there's more to loneliness than just family, but I can't fathom that the decrease in family size and importance in our society can have any effect other than to worsen any and all factors of loneliness.

Christopher B said...

One thing that didn't come up in that analysis is the intersection of generation and age or stage of life. Using quoted birth years, the oldest Millenials are just under 40, oldest Gen Z about 22. By contrast the oldest Boomers are passing 75, and my Gen X cohort are nearing 60. Both Millenials and Gen Z are in stages of life that are marked by a lot of upheaval and possible divergence from prior friends - relocating for school and jobs, marriage (and possibly divorce), children being born. They are also, if I remember studies correctly, in the decades of life where people report being the unhappiest. I'm not too surprised that many might feel they have few friends because they are at the point in life when existing friendships might be broken.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Unknown - One-child policy for two full generations. Japan and Italy have done much the same, averaging 1.2 children per woman over the same period. No one in those places has uncles, aunts, or cousins. The words have lost their meaning. Not that no one knows what they are, but that the whole culture in which those eccentric, disreputable, sympathetic, rich, affectionate, infuriating, or rescuing individuals who have a definite tie to you that neither of you created but has reality - disappears from the world.

The idea of Italian families with no uncles, aunts, and cousins is completely foreign to the stereotype of my youth. It must be a different culture entirely in just two generations.

james said...

How often has there been this kind of population decline before? Regional famines would do it, but I'd guess that the survivors would try to migrate rather than continue to endure famine for a couple of generations.
Rome's population went into decline in the West, but we don't seem to have detailed numbers about what happened to people. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_Roman_Empire

I suspect there's a vicious cycle with loneliness, just as there may be one (as you pointed out earlier) with having fewer siblings correlating with wanting fewer children.

Donna B. said...

Look, there's an elephant! Birth control and 'sexual revolution'.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Donna B - Hmm. Increased freedom to take the easier path? Westerners do support increased choices, but we are also good at pretending there aren't as many consequences as we claim. I've done that many times.