Almost everyone has felt lonely at some point during the nine months of the coronavirus pandemic. With social distancing in place and schools closed, it’s normal and expected to feel a pang of isolation. However, not everyone experiences loneliness in the same way, and in fact there are large differences in how young people and old people report their feelings of loneliness.
Among all age groups, loneliness is common: in fact, nearly 2 out of 3 Americans regularly feel lonely. But young people are more likely than their parents or grandparents to feel that they are alone. Nearly 80% of Gen Z’ers (born in the early 2000s) feel lonely, compared with half of Baby Boomers.
Loneliness Versus Being Alone
Before considering the differences in loneliness between young people and old people it’s important to understand loneliness as a phenomenon. True loneliness is experienced when a person lacks meaningful connection in their lives, says Geoff Thompson, PhD, program director for Sunshine Coast Health Centre in British Columbia.
That’s different from someone who is alone most of the time by choice. It’s also different from people who have friends and loved ones, but are temporarily limited in seeing them because of the pandemic. This distinction can help explain why some people feel lonely in situations where others are ok.
Young People and Loneliness
Young people under the age of 25, who were already at increased risk of loneliness, are also more likely to experience a spike in loneliness because of the pandemic.
“According to a Canadian study, young people were significantly more depressed because of the pandemic than were the elderly,” Thompson says.
Research has shown that around the globe, young people are more vulnerable to loneliness for the following reasons:
- Their social networks are not well established. Although teens and young adults may have lots of friends coming and going through their lives, their social patterns are often in flux, with limited genuine connections.
- They feel pulled between friends and family. The challenges of navigating independence from family with the pressure to conform to peer expectations can take a toll on young people.
- They’re still finding themselves. The antidote to loneliness is meaningful connection, but young people often don’t yet know what brings meaning to their lives.
In short, young people are often in transition, which can make it easy for loneliness to take hold. The pandemic, which has further interrupted social norms, can make that even more acute.
Older People and Loneliness
There’s a common belief that older people experience more loneliness than their children or grandchildren.
“As we age, our social networks become smaller due to retirement, widowhood, and children leaving home,” says Daniel Jordan, MA, director of strategic development at Sunshine Coast Health Centre.
The most isolated — people in nursing homes — have relatively high rates of loneliness.
However, during the pandemic, older people have not seen the same rise in loneliness that younger people have.
“It may be that older people have developed resilience from overcoming financial crashes, war, and other disasters, as well as being more financially secure,” Thompson says. “This is not to say that the elderly have escaped loneliness. We have sufficient research of those in care homes that they, too, have felt the burden of loneliness from social distancing. But, as a group, they appear to be less affected than youth.”
Fighting off Loneliness
Researchers studying loneliness around the globe concluded that people at different ages have different causes of loneliness. While a young person might be lonely because she doesn’t have many deep friendships, her grandmother might be lonely because she is unable to see her friends or loved ones because of health.
“Loneliness is complex,” Thompson says.
Reflecting on the cause of loneliness can help people to address their specific experience of loneliness, and make more meaningful connections in their lives in the future.
Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.