The Lone Generation

Loneliness, a recent study has shown, can cause the body to be more prone to illness and lead to premature death. So as if being lonely didn’t suck already, you can now look forward to its side effects. Browsing the web, you’ll find most articles and studies on loneliness focus on the elderly. However, on the other end on the spectrum, there is an insidious trend of taking over the lives the young urban professionals in cities like New York and San Francisco: long hours at the office, 80+ hour work weeks that don’t end on Fridays, meals alone in front of the computer, and endless swipes on dating apps during bathroom breaks. We are quietly becoming the lone generation. Young, beautiful, smart, successful even but lonely.

A simple search on Google will reveal a slew of advice on how to cope with loneliness. Try new activities, go back to old activities, enjoy doing activities on your own, get out there and do activities. Make new friends, hang out with old friends, adopt a fury friend. All fantastic ideas, and if you’re finding yourself alone, you should certainly try doing these things. But this advice doesn’t necessarily help with loneliness. Loneliness is not a dynamic state of being, loneliness is a profound feeling. You can feel lonely while doing activities, while surrounded by many good friends. Like most profound feelings, it is hard to describe but it is similarly sticky and hard to shake off, like a constant yearning for something unattainable.

In a tragically beautiful essay called The Opposite of Loneliness, the young budding writer, Marina Keegan, describes the opposite of loneliness as the thing she wants in her life, “it’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.” I call this opposite of loneliness, belonging. For centuries human societies were built around communities that promoted a sense of belonging and group identity. Your tribe, your village, your church, these circles made you feel safe, cared for, and protected from real or perceived threats. Of course, like everything in life, communal living came at a cost. The cost was varying levels of loss of individuality, independence, and freedom of choice. The community defined the life an individual, where they can live, what they can do, and who they can love and marry. Over time however as education and technology enabled us to support and protect ourselves as individuals, the practical need for a community dissipated. As empowered individuals, we began to assert our unique wants and needs and rebelled against the constraints of the community.

Today, in the developed world, such considerations as deferential treatment of elders, obeying the will of parents, and sacrificing ones own desires for the good of a group would seem arcane and backwards. We have immersed ourselves wholeheartedly in the cult of the individual. Independence is celebrated above all else. This is not all bad, it has had an immense positive impact on the way we live our lives as more and more individuals pursue their dreams and realize them. However, this too comes at a cost. The bonds that once held us together, like family and neighborhood, have loosened, so much so that bringing the family together for dinner is the aspirational thing companies like KFC and Nestle hope will make you buy their “food”. Our relationships are now measured not in strength, but in strings. “No strings attached” is viewed by an alarming portion of the young population as the ideal relationship. Perhaps they are, perhaps they offer a chance to have it all, to be “together but separate” as a friend of mine once described his “perfect” relationship, “we hang out when we miss each other but we’re not bound by any rules or restrictions.”

But perhaps the strings are not bounds, but bonds. They don’t hold us down, but lift us up and keep us together. Without them we are floating aimlessly, like a lost kite caught in the wind, carried away from where we belong. Isolated and alone, we seek out connection, meaningful connection, not the kind you get from a swipe right on Tinder while hiding in a bathroom stall at work. Secretly we want to be “together together”, to belong and feel the opposite of loneliness, but we fear how this might affect our career trajectory, our ability to compete with the other machines gunning for that promotion, or our need to satisfy our wanderlust before “it’s too late”. Our fear of the unforeseen consequences of communal commitments is pushing us to stay longer at work, keep our weekend plans tentative in case something better comes up, and avoid any chance of getting tied down like the plague.

So is loneliness then the price we choose to pay for our freedom and independence? Or is it a quietly fatal epidemic we’re unknowingly spreading through our way of life?