In his book “Loneliness,” University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo wrote that negative risks of living alone are far worse than air pollution or obesity.
If that is the case, the long-term prognosis for Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, is not good, as they have already spent much of their formative childhood years experiencing profound loneliness. According to a recent American National Family Life survey, at least 56% of Gen Zers say they feel lonely once or twice a month. In contrast, only 24% of baby boomers felt lonely as children.
There are numerous reasons for this loneliness, including the decline of institutions that used to provide community for children—churches, schools, scout groups, and sport leagues (particularly in the COVID-19 era) while isolating activities such as social media have risen to take their place.
But a great deal of this loneliness can be traced to living in lonely homes—with only one parent present—and that parent often having to spend most of his or her time outside of the home working to make ends meet—which is a major consequence of the continued family breakdown in our society.
For instance, a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 23% of U.S. children under the age of 18 now live in a single-parent home or in a home where no other adult is present.
The American National Family Life survey reports that only 37% of Gen Zers raised in single-parent homes said they had regular meals with their family growing up, while 69% of those raised in two-parent homes had dinner with their families regularly when they would share a meal and interactions with parents and siblings.
The results show great benefits for children in two-parent families, as several studies have shown that children do best in two-parent families, when families eat together and interact with each other over dinner and have relationships with other siblings—something that many children in single-parent homes do not get to experience.
In addition, those in single-parent or no-parent homes have experienced the pain of divorce, seeing their world splintered. This often sends them into a spiral of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, as they grieve for the missing parent and intact family they once had. More than 52% of American children raised by divorced parents experience loneliness, compared to only 33% of children in intact two-parent homes.
Societal pressures such as societal shaming of large families and ever-rising economic pressures have resulted in smaller families and fewer siblings for children to grow up and experience life with.
Thus, for Gen Zers, the generation just entering into adulthood, as the old song by the Three Dog Night goes, “One is the loneliest number.”
So, how can we stop this cycle of loneliness?
While there are obvious answers based on these findings—such as people benefitting from the joy of being married, having children, and remaining married—there are other steps that we can take to keep children from being doomed to a life of isolation.
For instance, the institutions that provide community, such as churches, need to be more intentional in identifying those children and young adults who are lonely and emphasize providing the relationships and positive interactions that are missing in their lives. It is no coincidence that the decline in church attendance among the young has led to increased isolation.
Secondly, children in earlier generations often started working in high school, learning how to interact with others of all ages while learning communication skills. Gen Zers often find themselves behind computer screens, rather than gaining the real-life relationships that can occur in a shared workplace.
Providing opportunities for them to learn and interact with others in such a work environment, as well as personal and professional mentors for them to follow, would do much to solve the loneliness they currently endure.
Gen Zers are yearning for these relationships based on the loneliness they are expressing. They are yearning to physically interact with their peers and with others, not just on their smartphones.
As one writer put it, “[Gen Zers] value authenticity in communication.” It is our job to provide that authenticity and those relationships. Perhaps these words from the Australian Christian music group King and Country provide more hope for those who struggle with loneliness:
If you’re lookin’ for hope tonight, raise your hand
If you feelin’ alone and don’t understand
If you’re fightin’ in the fight of your life, then stand
We’re gonna make it through this hand-in-hand
If we reach out those who are lonely, the result will be personal and societal restoration. For Gen Zers, one does not need to be the loneliest number.
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