Mental Health

Which generation is the loneliest?

The common belief that older generations tend to be lonelier has been proven wrong by a recent national survey conducted by health services organization, Cigna, and market research firm, Ipsos. The results not only debunk this theory, but also show quite the opposite. The main finding concluded that the younger the generation, the lonelier.

Over 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 and above were surveyed. Respondents were given a score using the UCLA Loneliness Scale. The 20-item questionnaire evaluates feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Scores can range from 20 to 80, with a score of 43 or higher qualifying as lonely.

The survey identified Generation Z, those born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, as the loneliest generation. The loneliness scores gradually decrease (the lower the score, the less lonely) as you move upward from generation to generation.

  • Gen Z: 3 (most lonely)
  • Millennials: 3
  • Baby boomers: 4
  • Greatest Generation (72 years old and above): 38.6 (least lonely)

“My main theory on the loneliness of Gen Z and Millennials is rooted deep in developmental psychology and Erik Erikson’s stages of development,” said Dr. Dale Peeples, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.

“As a teenager, the developmental challenge is identity vs. role confusion. As they’re trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in, there can be feelings of loneliness until they attach to a group. The next developmental task occurs in the 20s and 30s—intimacy vs. isolation. It’s during this phase of life that most people are trying to forge a lasting connection with a partner,” said Peeples.

Dr. Peeples suggests these developmental challenges could be significant contributors to the higher loneliness scores of younger generations.

Interestingly, respondents classified as very heavy users of social media scored an average of 43.5 and those who claimed to never use social media scored 41.7. From one extreme to another, the scores are very close. Research around the relationship between social media, depression and feelings of loneliness has been mixed.

“Those who use it for direct messaging, organization and as a way to build on existing relationships tend to report less depression/loneliness than those who use it to waste time surfing through feeds,” said Peeples.

The data shows that having a balance of some major aspects of life is critical in feeling less lonely. Those who say they get adequate amounts of work, physical activity, sleep, socializing with friends, family time and alone time scored lower overall (the lower the score, the less lonely). Too much or too little time spent in these areas negatively affects feelings of loneliness.

“Strong recommendations were made to make the workplace a more connected and socially responsive environment,” said Dr. Bernard Davidson, a psychologist at Augusta University Health. “Contrary to what some may think, experiencing meaningful social interaction in the workplace did not detract from performance, but was associated with less loneliness and greater work productivity.”

Some of the extreme findings include:

  • 46% sometimes or always feel alone
  • 43% sometimes or always feel their relationships are not meaningful
  • 43% sometimes or always feel they are isolated from others.

“On a positive note, the study reinforces the importance of social contact and how it positively impacts our health,” said Davidson.

Those who scored to be less lonely were more likely to:

  • Have regular, meaningful, in-person interactions
  • Be in good overall physical and mental health
  • Have achieved balance in daily activities
  • Be employed and have good relationships with their coworkers

Keep in mind that surveys have limitations. It’s important to consider the recruitment methods used, the metrics used and who is sponsoring the study. Not all surveys meet these standards but they can bring awareness to important issues and offer valuable findings and recommendations.

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About the author

Augusta University Health

Based in Augusta, Georgia, Augusta University Health is a world-class health care network, offering the most comprehensive primary, specialty and subspecialty care in the region. Augusta University Health provides skilled, compassionate care to its patients, conducts leading-edge clinical research and fosters the medical education and training of tomorrow’s health care practitioners. Augusta University Health is a not-for-profit corporation that manages the clinical operations associated with Augusta University.