The Loneliest Generation?

Recently a clever video went viral called The Innovention of Loneliness which illustrates some of the modern problems that have been introduced because of the Internet and technology. If you’re a millennial, most of what the video talks about will feel familiar, like the ability to “self-edit” and constantly be plugged-in to our communication platforms. Mark-Anthony Smith of Entitled Millennial wrote about his personal experience of growing up with social media starting with AOL Instant Messenger all the way back in 1998! His experience should also be very familiar to the average millennial. It correlated with my experience as well, and acknowledges that the internet (for good or ill) is an integral part of how millennials grew up.

I thought I would follow up by talking about the video, and some of my thoughts on the impact the internet has had on our ability to relate with each other.

The Self & Community

The video acknowledges at the beginning that “we are social creatures” and we naturally form community. It makes an interesting point that the modern Western value of Hyper Individualization has isolated the individual. The Individual can achieve fulfillment outside of community through: 1. Personal Achievements 2. Wealth 3. Self-Image 4. Consumerism.

“These tools of self-actualization replace familial and community relationships. This has lead to social fabric weakening, and LONELINESS.”

Enter Internet

If you introduce online capabilities to the value of Hyper Individualization, the result is more connectivity but also more isolation. Communication platforms are used to promote values like Success, and Self-Image rather than actually building relationships. Online social networks enable relationship QUANTITY over relational QUALITY. A more addicting quality of our online presentation of ourselves is that we have “editing” capabilities. We can begin to actually prefer online interaction because we are our own Public Relations specialists.

The video says that this creates a cycle. We are lonely but afraid of intimacy. Online world offers us three gratifying fantasies:

1. We can give attention to whatever we want. We control our flow of information.

2. We will always be heard. Blogging, tweeting, Facebook, texting.

3. Therefore we are never alone.

The idea that we will never have to be alone is a paradigm shift. As human beings we crave community. Connectivity trumps intimacy. The video concludes “If we are not able to be alone, we are only going to know how to be lonely.”

Social Adapting & Building Intimacy

The first point of the video is spot-on: we are social creatures. Because of this I think socially we will adapt to technology, and have already to a degree. There has already been a social shift in acknowledging this “online social life” phenomenon. The TV show Portlandia satirized how a spontaneous romantic trip to Italy with a new lover appeared amazing and “life-changing” on Facebook, when in reality the trip was an utter, and embarrassing failure. Because of the adjustment to social media, individuals have probably experienced this disconnect between their online appearance and the reality of their own lives. Because we know our own social media platforms are edited, we know to not completely trust the projected image of our “friends” Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feeds. “It’s all filtered,” we think.

The Future of Intimacy

I’m not a conventional millennial in this aspect: I’m married with 1.5 kids (surprise! I’m pregnant!). I couldn’t find statistics on millennials who are married (feeling lazy!) but I know it’s quite low. Not that marriage is the only means to a quality relationship, I’m just saying even though I’m not single or “unattached” I don’t think I’m just being sentimental is believing that it’s too much a part of our nature to seek out authentic connections. If anything, perhaps millennials will usher in a much needed shift from Hyper-Individualization to more community-oriented, and quality-relationship oriented society.

Perhaps as a generation we are discovering that the “Tools of Self-Actualization” are a bit of a farce: Personal Achievements, Wealth, Self-Image, & Consumerism? How about a good conversation with someone who knows you and cares about you? “All you need is love” the Boomer generation said, but the reality of the values that were passed on to millennials seem to contradict this sentiment. Perhaps the current loneliness epidemic is a good catalyst for a healthy change to prioritize relationships.

If this shift to prioritizing authentic relationships doesn’t happen though, the video might be right that millennials are destined to be the Loneliest Generation. Like the video says, connectivity is a powerful replacement to intimacy, and creates the illusion of being heard, and faux-community. But it’s only a substitute that can’t meet the needs of an individual for long, so I think most millennials will eventually take the risk of trying to build real intimacy. In my opinion, the fear of loneliness will trump the fear of intimacy, though it could be a longer and harder battle for this generation than in the past.

11 thoughts on “The Loneliest Generation?

  1. Love this piece Rachel. Brilliant job. And most importantly, congratulations on the upcoming baby! That’s amazing!

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said eventually our generation’s fear of loneliness may trump the fear of intimacy, but it may take longer because of our experiences (er, attachment) to the internet.

  2. Very interesting discussion. So, I will again preface this with that I am not a millennial, but a 61 yo baby boomer. I have never had much a social connectedness electronically, but I have really found that my most stimulating intellectual and/or career types of conversations primarily occur through blogs and moocs – excluding my job related classroom and student interactions. Pretty much my real time “colleagues” are too busy carving their niche that we don’t connect at all. Given that I have often functioned career-wise as a specialization of one in various contexts, for the past 20 years I have been quite alone in that regard. As a baby boomer who found a career that fascinates and consumes a good bit of my existence, digital discussions have given me the opportunity to engage with other folks throughout the world. I realize too that I tend to sit on the edges of the box and push the boundaries in a milieu that does not want to be pushed.

    I was selected as the “Faculty Spotlight” for biannual publication at my University. This is a great irony to me. The irony is that because of my nontraditional positions at the University, I am qualified to be featured for my activities that are viewed by many in academia as the demise of higher education – blogs and wikipedia.

    Regardless, I have found in many ways that the digital connectedness has provided me with an opportunity to engage in conversation that I would otherwise have bouncing around in my head with no place else particularly to go. Irony again, is found in reading your blog and writing these words . . .

    • That’s ok I love non-Millennial responses! I agree that the Internet/ media is incredible for meeting like-minded individuals whether it be for intellectual pursuits, causes or hobbies. It seems blogs have gained more credibility over the last decade, and good to see that perhaps some are seeing it’s not the “demise of higher education” 😉 Thanks for you feedback!

  3. Great post here Rachel. I am really glad that you had the follow up to Mark’s brilliant piece. This “Perhaps the current loneliness epidemic is a good catalyst for a healthy change to prioritize relationships,” is spot on. 🙂

    Congrats on the new baby!!!! So excited for you!!!!

  4. Reblogged this on The Narcissistic Anthropologist and commented:
    This article poses an interesting paradox: how is it that the most socially networked generation in history is also potentially the loneliest? I suppose the idea here is that in the era of being able to carefully curate your public facing identity we are missing the ability to make more intimate human connections and thus limiting our self actualization ability.
    I am not sure I buy it – honestly. I think the social network environment actually opens up more opportunity for human intimacy – introducing us to people with similar ideas and ideas that we may never have met otherwise – allowing us to have friends wherever we go and thus giving us more possibilities to connect with one another and further our pursuit of “who am I and what am I doing here”.
    Interested in thoughts out there. Are Millennials really that lonely?

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