A loneliness epidemic? How marriage, religion, and mobility explain the generation gap in loneliness

September 26, 2019 | Daniel A. Cox, Ryan Streeter

Key Points

  • News reports suggest young adults are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. But a new survey finds that only 8 percent of millennials are often lonely. A significantly greater number (40 percent) feel lonely once in a while. More than half rarely if ever feel lonely.
  • Higher rates of loneliness among millennials are not due to excessive screen time or social media. Rather, the loneliness gap between generations is primarily driven by marriage, mobility, and religious engagement.
  • Loneliness is at least partly a product of our social environment. Americans who mostly interact with people of a different race, ethnicity, or religion are far lonelier than those who regularly interact with people who share their background.

Introduction

Conventional wisdom holds that loneliness is a serious problem in America today. The word “epidemic” has been used frequently to describe the prevalence of loneliness, especially among young people. Yet survey data from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey on Community and Society (SCS) and a review of related survey literature suggest that such characterizations of loneliness are overblown and possibly wrong.

Looked at comprehensively, the evidence suggests that young people have always been the loneliest generational cohort, going back to the earliest survey data on the topic. Millennials are likely to be lonelier than, say, baby boomers simply because they are younger, and as the boomers before them, they will likely be less lonely in surveys taken 10 and 20 years from now.

While our findings are not intended to minimize social isolation and loneliness when they are in fact a problem, we believe our findings help correct the prevailing notion that loneliness is a public health crisis needing a policy response. Findings are also consistent with the literature review that the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project conducted last year in its report, “All the Lonely Americans?”1

Our analysis of SCS data also sheds light on factors that contribute to, or minimize, loneliness. For instance, the higher levels of loneliness among millennials as compared to boomers vanish when we account for millennials who are married, religiously active, and geographically rooted. These factors reduce loneliness for millennials because they typically reduce loneliness in general. In other words, SCS data show nothing particularly unique about the experience of loneliness among young adults today. They are lonelier in general than older people because most of them are not as rooted in particular relationships and communities.

None of this is to say that loneliness is a nonissue or unworthy of attention. Rather, it is important to understand the scope and nature of loneliness and the factors that contribute to and reduce it, if we hope to address it properly in our society. This report, we hope, contributes to the literature in this regard.

Read the full report.

Notes

  1. Mike Lee, “All the Lonely Americans?,” US Congress Joint Economic Committee, August 22, 2018, https://www.jec.senate.gov/
    public/index.cfm/republicans/analysis?ID=FB0F036E-1047-4107-BEC6-0470D0345C83
    .

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