Meet the loneliest generation

Generation Z is the biggest — and loneliest — generation on record. What does that mean for employers?

From the pages of In Business magazine.

With apologies to Harry Nilsson and Three Dog Night, one might not be the loneliest number.

Try 60 million instead, or 2.6 billion. Those are the numbers of native-born American members of Generation Z and the projected number of Gen Z members worldwide by 2020, respectively.

How is it possible for the largest generation in history — larger than the millennial generation, which in turn was larger than baby boomers — to be so lonely?

Nearly half of respondents to a nationwide survey by health insurer Cigna say they always or sometimes feel alone, and 54% say they feel no one knows them well. Such loneliness is connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death. Contrary to popular belief, the loneliest group is young people, especially those born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s — the aforementioned Generation Z.

Members of Gen Z are less likely to have in-person social interactions, which the survey identified as a potential loneliness antidote. However, don’t be so quick to blame the generation’s reliance on social media and smartphones. According to the survey, respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).

According to an online report from Psychology Today, loneliness is not the same thing as being a private person or a loner. “Some of us actually both need and enjoy a lot of time to ourselves,” the report states. “Loneliness, instead, refers to the difference between the amount of social contact and intimacy you have and the amount you want. It’s about feeling isolated, like an outcast.

“That said, the opposite of loneliness isn’t popularity either — you can have dozens of ‘friends’ and still feel lonely,” the report continues. “Persistent loneliness is not only emotionally painful, but can be more damaging to our physical and mental health than many psychiatric illnesses. For instance, lonely people sleep poorly, experience severe depression and anxiety, have reduced immune and cardiovascular functioning, and exhibit signs of early cognitive decline that grow more severe over time.”

Thankfully, there are things Gen Zers — the oldest of whom are in their early 20s — and their employers can do to combat feelings of loneliness.

The Cigna study found people who engage in frequent meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.

Getting the right balance of sleep, work, socializing with friends and family, and “me time” is also connected to lower loneliness scores. However, balance is critical, as those who get too little or too much of these activities have higher loneliness scores.

Specifically, those who say they work just the right amount are least likely to be lonely. The loneliness score of those who work more than desired increases by just over three points, while those who work less than desired showed a six-point increase in loneliness.

All of this backs up the need for employers to create workplaces that value work-life balance, and provide employees with flexible schedules that allow them to work on site and remotely when conditions allow, and create opportunities for engagement with their communities both during and outside of work hours.

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