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Loneliness

3 Things Making Gen Z the Loneliest Generation

Gen Z is experiencing record-high levels of loneliness. Here's why.

Key points

  • Seventy-three percent of Gen Z report they feel alone either sometimes or always.
  • Seventy-two percent of Gen Z workers say they want to communicate with managers in person, while most managers think they prefer instant message.
  • Reversing the loneliness trend in Gen Z requires addressing contributors such as the overstimulation that leaves less time to connect.
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3 Things Making Gen Z the Loneliest Generation
Source: Shutterstock/Studio_f

A connected world that’s leaving so many feeling disconnected is counterintuitive and troublesome, yet it’s humanity’s new reality. And this new reality is impacting the next-generation workforce at an alarming rate. Seventy-three percent of Gen Z report feeling alone either sometimes or always—the highest level of any generation.

The mental health challenges experienced by Gen Z are like nothing any other generation has faced. Only 45 percent of Gen Z report “excellent” or “very good” mental health, which is the lowest of any generation. Ninety-one percent of Gen Z adults say they have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom because of stress, such as feeling depressed or sad (58 percent), or lacking interest, motivation, or energy (55 percent). And 68 percent of Gen Z report feeling significant stress about the future.

While mental health has previously been labeled a personal issue that should be addressed on personal time, the ramifications are showing up negatively at work. Seventy-five percent of Gen Z and half of Millennials left a job because of mental health reasons, compared with 34 percent of other generations. For employers, the implications are clear: Employee engagement and retention issues will loom large if loneliness isn’t addressed.

These numbers become increasingly concerning when you consider that 75 percent of the global workforce will be Millennials and Gen Z by 2030. Even if mental health and loneliness aren’t concerns that are vocalized by your current team... It. Is. Coming.

Gen Z will be the first generation in the workplace that has never been offline. The entire generation is younger than Google. That makes my Millennial hips hurt just writing that. Despite Gen Z’s digital upbringing and the inevitable advances of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and blockchain inside the workplace, Gen Z wants human elements at work.

The human elements of “supportive leadership” and “positive relationships at work” were Gen Z’s top two most important factors to consider in a job. And when it comes to workplace communication, my research discovered that 72 percent of Gen Z want to communicate face-to-face at work. In addition, 83 percent of Gen Z workers prefer to engage with managers in person, yet 82 percent of managers believe their Gen Z employees prefer to communicate via instant message. Further, 57 percent of Gen Z want to receive feedback several times a week, but only 50 percent of their managers provide feedback to them that frequently.

Most organizations seem to be deaf to Gen Z’s cries for more human connection. Effective organizations of the future will need to couple high-tech and high-touch among their teams. They will need to serve up the technology that the next generation has come to expect while delivering the human elements they crave and need.

Why Gen Z is the Loneliest Generation

I first learned that Gen Z was the loneliest generation back in 2019. Concerned and curious, that kicked off my research into loneliness. After surveying over 2,000 global workers across all generations—pre and post-pandemic—it turned out everyone is lonely, as 72 percent said they experience loneliness at least monthly.

While loneliness impacts all generations, it is intensified among the emerging generations, according to my research. All of us need to keep a close eye on the next generation because we don’t know what hangs in the balance if we fail to address the human connection needs of the most technologically advanced generation in human history.

Here are the top three things contributing to Gen Z's loneliness.

1. Overstimulation

Our preoccupation has skyrocketed in recent years. We are all distracted. We are distracted by work, house chores, progress, social media, the activities of today, the commitments of tomorrow, and then relieving the stress from it all. Our distractions are eating up most of our cognitive resources, leaving little to nothing for focusing on others. We’d all like to think we wouldn't turn our back on humanity, yet that is what we do every day when we choose an impersonal email over empathy, TikTok over tactile, a text over touch, or Instagram over in-person.

More and more we need to build in more margin so we can show up for those around us. More margin means more opportunity for meaningful connections.

We live in a world today where it takes little effort to fill your time. An endless amount of content in the palm of our hands has allowed us to consume news and entertainment whenever and wherever we are. We’ve become a culture more focused on strengthening our Wi-Fi connections than strengthening our personal connections. We need to trade our connectable technology for a more connectable team.

Is it overstimulation that causes loneliness, or is Gen Z overstimulated to distract from the pain of their loneliness? Either way, overstimulation is leaving Gen Z with less time to connect, making them feel lonelier.

2. Social Media

When it comes to social media, studies show that very heavy social media users are significantly more likely to feel alone, isolated, left out, and without companionship. Social media has caused a comparison trap. Comparing our life to someone else’s highlight reel leads to questions like, am I good enough, smart enough, wealthy enough, etc.?

According to Roger Patulny, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wollongong in Australia, while heavy social media users do experience more loneliness, there is also evidence to suggest social media use decreases loneliness among highly social people. Why the contradiction? “Social media is most effective in tackling loneliness when it is used to enhance existing relationships or forge new meaningful connections. On the other hand, it is counterproductive if used as a substitute for real-life social interaction. Thus, it is not social media itself, but the way we integrate it into our existing lives which impacts loneliness,” says Patulny.

The connections available to Gen Z are astounding, promising, and for some a great start to boost belonging. But the quantity of connections doesn’t make up for the quality of connections needed to lessen loneliness. High-quality connections online are rare because of how status-driven and polished the environments tend to be.

3. Dependency Shift

Information is no longer centralized in a family member, neighbor, coworker, or leader. Information is decentralized, empowering humanity to seek knowledge (or help) individually.

Humans are naturally dependent on each other. However, we aren’t as dependent as we once were. In the past, if your faucet was leaking in your home, you may have knocked on your neighbor’s door to ask for a plumber recommendation. Or you may have called a family member or friend to have them guide you through the process to fix it. Today, your first step would likely be to open YouTube and search for “how to fix a leaky faucet.”

The same is true at work. In the past, if you didn’t know how to create a pivot table in Excel, you would walk around to the desks of your coworkers to ask who knew how to do such Excel wizardry. Today a simple YouTube search yields a 2:14 minute video that clearly outlines what to do.

Gen Z isn’t the only guilty party in leveraging Google or YouTube to gain knowledge. Many of us are now quick to turn to the supercomputers in our pockets before we “inconvenience” someone else. This isn’t necessarily bad; this is useful and expeditious. But if these subtle non-human-reliant actions are becoming more commonplace, we need to build in more time for connection elsewhere in our lives.

As our dependency shifts more and more to technology, automation, and artificial intelligence—without a counterbalance—our loneliness will grow.

References

Ryan Jenkins & Steven Van Cohen (2022). Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams From Isolated to All In. New York, NY. McGraw-Hill Education.

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