I was asked by my daughter @lizziefreelance as part of her work as a freelance writer for @accomforstudent and madebyhistory637.wordpress.com to contribute to her article on research that has found that young people today are the loneliest generation. I was asked to reflect upon this through my experiences of being a student in the mid- 1980s.
Loneliness is both a physical and mental state, as you can be lonely (on your own) as well as feel lonely (isolated); sometimes the two are combined when being by one’s self creates feelings of rejection and desolation or experienced individually when physical isolation is a positive choice, but crowds of people provide no comfort. It is through this analysis of loneliness that I feel lie some of the differences and similarities between my generation and millennials. It is about the starting point, the expectations and the understanding, but what it is not about is being judgmental, patronising or “rose- tinted glasses wearing” upon a younger generation.
The biggest difference is how people today can communicate and interact. I phoned my parents weekly from university using the pay phone in the Student Union, wrote letters and physically spoke to people, today thankfully there are many more options and (amazingly not mentioned until the third paragraph) there is social media.
In the 1980s loneliness could be felt and exacerbated because there were limited ways of immediately contacting people if you felt down, and friendships were harder to sustain over distances as phone calls and letters often petered out as life intervened. Communication was also more expensive, whether it was the telephone or the cost of transport costs as you had to physically go out to alleviate your loneliness as friends could not be contacted virtually.
I grew up in a rural community which meant that loneliness was an everyday experience, which could be both positive and negative. The difference with today’s millennials to their credit is that my loneliness was never an issue of concern for anyone and would have created bemusement and bewilderment if I had said that it was making me unwell. Loneliness was a fact of life, and not an issue to challenge, address or treat. This is not to be disrespectful to parents or teachers, as a child of the 1970s I was washed, fed, and clothed but other than wiping my tears from grazed knees or bee stings emotions were not on the agenda. Like my contemporaries it never occurred to me to speak to my parents if I was lonely or ask to do something such as go out to address it. Millennials quite rightly have spoken and put mental well-being out there to be taken seriously; for every child of my generation who says their loneliness was the making of them there will be many more who say that they still carry the scars of its impact on them today.
Mobile phones, the internet and social media both prevent and alleviate loneliness. There is an immediate link you can access whether it is with an individual via your phone, interaction with social media or online gaming. Technology has also made it possible to find partners via online dating sites and apps that are very different to the limited opportunities available thirty years ago.
But it is this veritable feast of options that is also ironically a cause of loneliness too, one that was unknown and so not experienced by the 1980s generation. It is that so much creates a measure of loneliness that is unrealistic and inevitably sets people up to suffer. To see or read about so many engaging with “friends” and liking comments or pictures can make people feel that their loneliness is their fault because they are not interesting/sociable/attractive enough. It can mask a lack of close and meaningful contact, and the judgement of the mass can be isolating. In the 1980s we never had this kind of pressure because you had contact with far fewer people and only four television channels to watch!
Today’s awareness of mental health issues of which loneliness is a factor is also a double- edged sword which while recognising how serious an issue it is persists in linking it to “weakness” in the young while campaigning to alleviate it in older generations. In the 1980s the “old” were the only generation entitled to be lonely too. I would never be disrespectful but just as the older generation are lonely because they have lost partners, family or friends, so younger people have fewer ties or commitments which can an adventure but also a lonely, long and cavernous road disappearing far into the future. In the 1980s we weren’t thought capable of suffering mentally from loneliness and today the young are not always felt entitled to feel the same way too.
I love that today the voice of the young is loud, confident and heard. In the 1980s it was hard to shout with a voice that was assumed to not exist. Today young people are not as lonely because technology has given them instant access to a community that is empowering and enveloping, even though it is also one that can exclude by false measurements and sheer scale. In the 1980s you had fewer friendships and the opportunities for making friends were rarer, but they were close, immediate and real. Millennials have many more friends, but loneliness can come from the lack of closeness or immediacy in these “superficial “contacts”.
Today it is good and right that young people can say that they are lonely, that it is making them ill and they need support. The fact that we acknowledge this has meant that many more people have spoken out which gives the impression of a lonelier generation.
But, surprise, surprise, the lonely were always there and thanks to these millennials we are now starting to listen. It is sad that for far too long some voices went unheard or were never listened too.
Check out my thoughts on student life in the 1980s at Student Life-Life at University in the 1980s An Interview With My Mum