Why Loneliness May Be a Bigger Problem for the Young Than the Old

For young people whose developmental task is to connect with other people, the pandemic can feel like life is on pause

The silhouette of a young man looking outside a window alone.
Photo: Sasha Freemind/Unsplash

During the pandemic there’s been plenty of public service announcements to check in on your elderly neighbors. Especially now, in an era of coronavirus-driven quarantines, they may be feeling isolated and alone.

However, you might want to redirect some empathy to those quiet young adults living in their studio apartments or parents’ basements. It turns out they are more likely than their grandparents to report feeling lonely.

According to a spate of recent studies, loneliness is a plague of its own, one that predates the pandemic and has hit the young particularly hard. Think of it as another of the chronic but largely ignored societal issues Covid-19 is forcing us to grapple with.

“The frustrated 17-year-old who can’t leave the house is probably in worse shape than a 75-year-old, who probably has better coping tools for dealing with this stressful period,” says University of Southern California psychologist Christopher Beam, PhD, who recently wrote about this phenomenon in the journal Psychological Trauma.

“Young people often feel quite isolated and alone,” agrees clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, PhD, director of research and education for the Santa Barbara, California-based Glendon Association. “They often feel excluded, and I think the pandemic just exacerbates these feelings of being an outsider.”

Firestone warns that those negative emotions can have serious long-term consequences. “Loneliness really does contribute to poorer mental and physical health,” she says. “There’s some pretty good research that it lowers your immunity. Lonely people are more prone to anxiety and depression, and are more likely to have an unhealthy lifestyle.”

How widespread is this problem? Beam was analyzing data on loneliness in older adults when he found, to his surprise, that the loneliest adults seem to be the youngest (late teens and 20s) and the very oldest (late 80s and 90s).

“Their developmental task is to connect with other people. To build up their social network, find a romantic partner, and establish a family if they so desire. In a pandemic, where you’re forced to socially isolate, it frustrates those efforts.”

He points to a 2012 study by British researcher Christina Victor, who found 61% of older adults said they never felt lonely, whereas only 9% reported severe loneliness. In contrast, “among adolescents and young adults, greater than 50% report feelings of loneliness,” he says.

That pattern emerges again and again in surveys from Britain, Germany, and the United States. A 2018 report from the global health service company Signa concluded that, among Americans, Generation Z — adults ages 18 to 22 — is “the loneliest generation.”

This doesn’t surprise Firestone (who is not involved in Beam’s research). She says that young people “are attempting to establish independence from their parents, and may feel estranged from them” — even before they have established solid relationships with friends or mentors. That can lead to intense feelings of loneliness.

“Their developmental task is to connect with other people,” adds Beam. “To build up their social network, find a romantic partner, and establish a family if they so desire. In a pandemic, where you’re forced to socially isolate, it frustrates those efforts. I’ve had graduate students tell me, ‘It’s so hard to meet people right now.’”

Overall, surveys suggest loneliness has not increased dramatically since the shelter-at-home orders were instituted this spring. In a British survey taken during a full lockdown, 6.3% of respondents reported feeling lonely both before the virus hit and while in quarantine. The number who said they seldom felt lonely pre-Covid-19, but were experiencing loneliness now, was tiny — 1.3% of the total sample.

Strikingly, a slightly larger group, 1.6%, reported the opposite: They suffered from chronic loneliness, but had not felt lonely in recent days, perhaps because friends or relatives were calling to check on them. For the lonely, quarantining can have its upside for that reason, among others.

“One young man that I work with struggles with connecting with people, but during this pandemic, he and his roommate have gotten quite close,” says Firestone. “Their relationship got much deeper during the time they were both confined to home.”

To be clear, for most chronically lonely people who yearn to connect with others, the pandemic presents significant challenges. Beam noted that his advice for such individuals is to schedule activities that (a) they enjoy, and (b) expose them to meeting people they can potentially connect with.

At a time when traditional gathering places like bars and coffee shops are closed or severely restricted, that guidance isn’t easy to follow. But Firestone argues it can be done if you think creatively. “I have a client taking an outside painting class, where they’re spaced six feet apart,” she says. “There are also a lot of online forums for meeting people. People are going to virtual events.”

With the election approaching, she also advises politically minded people to get involved in a campaign. She calls it a chance to “connect with other like-minded people who are passionate about the same issues.”

Finally, for anyone feeling a loss of connection, she recommends extended telephone calls or video chats with others — perhaps while sharing some sort of experience such as having a drink, or even cooking a meal. “If you stay on calls longer, you can have deeper conversations,” she says.

Some of Beam’s graduate students have learned that in a roundabout way. They took part in a program earlier this summer in which they regularly called senior citizens in their area. The idea was to help the elderly feel less alone, but as it progressed, “at least some of the seniors commented that they felt they were helping the younger generation out,” he says.

Which indeed they were. You’re less likely to feel lonely when a friendly voice is on the line.

Tom Jacobs is a California-based journalist who focuses on psychology, behavior, creativity, and the arts. He was the senior staff writer of Pacific Standard.

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