How Millennials and GenZ Are Redefining Social Relationships
In this article, “relationship” designates the social link that exists between two people that relate in some way. Relationships should not be a synonym for romantic relationship, as it is also used for friendships.
Tl;dr: millennials and GenZ are less social than their parents because relationships have become harder; their social position within society is unique; there are alternatives to relationships; people are more fragile; the gap between reality and expectation has widened.
Furthermore, studies show that about 30% of millennials often or always feel lonely (the share is higher for GenZ).
Many reasons such as technology, a change of mentality, lower purchasing power, the need for productivity and self-care, among other things, have been cited to explain this change of behavior.
These features play a role in millennials’ social behavior. However, I believe they only indirectly influence new social patterns.
What is at the root of the decrease in partying is that millennials spend much more time alone than previous generations did at the same age.
Relationships are hard for millennials. They are much harder than for the previous generations.
It is difficult to pinpoint one cause that could explain it all. As often within the realm of social sciences, phenomenons are not rooted in one cause. They are influenced by a succession of different events that once combined, lead to a specific situation.
As we are about to find out, technology has been the main driver behind the transformation of social relationships during the recent decade.
However, the widening gap of social-economic inequalities, the decrease of purchasing power, and millennials’ education are almost equally responsible for the current situation.
Without any further ado, here are 5 reasons why millennials are not as social as their parents were.
1. Relationships Are Harder
Relationships are harder because they demand more effort to maintain. Furthermore, the risks to do so are higher, often higher than the perks in some cases.
Technology is the main driver behind the complication of social relationships. Here are four ways tech influences social relationships.
1. The Filter Bubble
The filter bubble is a term coined by Eli Pariser that expresses the tendency of social media users to build themselves a bubble of content and opinion they agree with, hence decreasing the exposure to content they may disagree with.
The filter bubble is a consequence of search algorithms recommending users content that they like based on their previous consumption history. The purpose is to keep them on the platform for as long as possible.
Slowly, users become acquainted, to see, read, and hear facts and opinions they agree with. Their (in appearance) perfect online world makes them less suited for the real world, where people remain different from one another and where opinions and facts are not tailored to their preferences.
As such, since millennials are almost only exposed to content they agree with, they experience difficulties bonding with people that have opposite beliefs.
In the current politicization climate and overall lack of respect and tolerance for different viewpoints, millennials may choose to remain alone instead of spending time with people that don’t entirely fit their views.
The filter bubble overall decreases users’ capacity to relate to one another by decreasing the exposure of information they don’t agree with.
Untrained to remain open and consider people for what they are instead of what they think, millennials have a lower capacity to bond with people. This makes relationships harder.
2. Technology Increased the Relationship Acquisition Cost
The Relationship Acquisition Cost (RAC) is a concept expressing the cost that an individual will have to pay to establish a friendship with someone else.
Relationships are not free.
Firstly, they take time to develop (I used to say it took two years and a half to get to know somebody, now I am not sure you ever get to know someone well…).
Secondly, they take efforts to develop. It is by spending time and doing activities with people that individuals develop bonds and shared memories that reinforce their mutual relationship.
In the past, time and efforts were invested in relationships only at times people spent time with their friends.
This is no longer the case.
Time and efforts can be (and are) invested into relationships at any hour of the day, any day.
Millennials may spend two hours with their friends, come back home, and keep on interacting with them through technology.
I would go as far as to claim that technological interactions are mandatory for the maintenance of a relationship.
Would you be able to maintain a friendship with someone that didn’t have any smartphone, messaging, or social media account?
How would you contact them to meet them? On their landline? With fog signals?
I would struggle to keep in touch with someone that doesn’t have Whatsapp (and I don’t use social media….).
As such, while the cost of acquiring a friend in the past was equal to the time an individual was willing to spend with that person, it is today equal to that time added to the time spent on social media interactions.
RAC = time and efforts in real life + time and efforts online
Since relationships are more expensive, individuals choose their friends more carefully and simultaneously expect more out of the relationship…because it is more expensive (we’ll come back to that).
3. Individuals Must Care for Their Online Reputation
The only way to destroy information stored on a hard drive is to physically destroy the hard drive.
You can ctrl-alt-del as much as you wish, once information is written on memory, it is written forever.
Since there are now as many cameras as there are people in a room due to everyone having a smartphone, individuals are no longer free to have “moments of regret”.
Worse, they must take care at all times of their in-life and online reputation to avoid suffering further consequences.
It’s Big Brother, except that Big Brother is everyone standing in the room with you.
As such, the internet is full of viral videos of people going mad, “un-politically correct” rants or embarrassing moments caught on cameras and subsequently broadcast to the world.
When it is on the Internet, it is there forever.
Many reputations have been destroyed, jobs were lost and in certain cases, instigators even received death threats and had to isolate themselves to protect themselves.
Some committed suicide.
Let’s be honest, we’re humans and we all have said and done things we regretted later.
No one is perfect. No one is how they appear to be.
This is the principle behind the protection of privacy. It is the right to do, say, and be such that you wouldn’t want other people to know about.
Unfortunately, with the invasion of cameras, it is more and more costly to be, do and say such that you don’t want others to know about. Worse, people must correspond to the way they’re portrayed online at the risk to be denounced as fraud.
Getting completely drunk in the ’90s would only become a bad memory. It wouldn’t even be discussed in society for the sake of respect.
However, getting completely drunk in 2020 can go as far as become a worldwide meme.
Whatever you do, whatever the context, once it is caught on camera, it will exist forever.
As such, I argue that people’s lack of freedom to let loose a little and indulge in un-politically correct behaviors have made relationships harder and less worth it.
Individuals must control themselves at all times. They know that one mistake can cost them their entire reputation.
To me, this mainly explains why millennials and GenZ party less, drink less, and do fewer drugs than before.
You don’t want your boss to find out who you were throwing up on last Saturday.
The tricky thing about social media is that you can’t choose to have an online reputation or not. Your lack of account does not prevent other people from uploading pics and videos of you.
As long as you exist, you have an online reputation to manage, whether you like it or not.
The only way to protect yourself against this is to decrease your real-life social exposure.
4. The Attention Span Decreased Relationship Quality
One of my principles is to stop speaking with people that simultaneously look at their phones while talking to me.
It’s not that I find it rude. I used to be on my phone myself when people spoke to me. However, I quickly noticed I could not listen to them at the same time. So I stopped.
When people talk to me, I make efforts to care about what they say and to listen to them. I expect them to reciprocate that commitment.
I know they can’t possibly listen to me on one hand and browse Instagram on the other. So I stop talking and start again once they put their phone away.
This habit of multitasking decreases relationship quality. When people are interacting with a screen, they are not interacting with each other. Four friends hanging out together, being on their phones, are not hanging out together.
Human connection requires eye contact and genuine emotions which can’t be achieved when screens get in the way.
Furthermore, it has become harder and harder to have deep conversations due to the decrease in attention span.
I like to conceptualize attention span as a small bell on the corner of your brain ringing every x minutes to remind you to check your phone.
However, what it is is the brain’s incapacity to focus because it is not trained to do so. It also develops a dependence on the dopamine secreted every time there is a notification. As such, it is frequent to see people taking out their phone without any purpose but to look at the screen and get in the process their hourly shot of dopamine.
Have you ever spent a day without your phone? Have you ever gone out without your phone?
I did. Here’s what happened: I felt naked.
It was also not practical at all. I got lost and couldn’t find my way home. I couldn’t unblock a public transportation bike. I had a myriad of information to google but couldn’t do so.
I also kept on feeling my right pocket with my hand, which was annoying since my phone wasn’t there.
Technology has become so important in our lives that it has become difficult to lose ourselves in thoughts, activities, or relationships without thinking about it.
Whatever happens, we always think, in a small corner of our mind, about our phone, and everything it contains.
2. Millennials’ World Is Freer Than Their Parents’ but Economically More Difficult
Humans are driven to do what they are forbidden by their counterparts. Should your parents tell you to stop eating cake, the only thing you’ll want to do is to eat half of it.
Similarly, French people fought hard during the Revolution for the right to vote. Today, not even half of the country exercises that right.
In the Netherlands, where cannabis is as easy to buy as a shirt, the share of teens smoking is much lower than in countries where cannabis is illegal.
The drunkest tourists in Dubai are the Saudis since alcohol consumption is forbidden in their country.
There are a million of other examples outlining this principle. Humans are inherently attracted to what they cannot have. They further lose interest as soon their right is granted (the best way to get people not to do something is to permit them to).
I believe this principle to be at the heart of boomers and GenX’s decadent behavior of the ’60s and the ’80s.
50 years ago, they fought for freedom and against the established societal rules (May 69 in France). Drugs were not only forbidden, they were looked down on from societal standards.
As such, decadent consumption and partying were mainly caused by society’s propensity to forbid them. The ban further united young people like nothing ever had before.
It was May 69. Boomers were fighting for social rights.
Women, particularly, were at the forefront of the fight regarding issues such as the right to abortion, the right to take the pill, and the recognition of rape within marriage.
Today, millennials don’t have anything to fight for.
Socially, society has never been as free as it is now.
LGBTQ people are free to be themselves and politics have been enforced against their discrimination.
Overall, millennials are much freer than their parents. The pressure to fit a certain societal type has in almost cases, completely disappeared. They don’t have any reasons to assemble to fight because there is nothing to fight for (so they need to find a pretext to do so when they want to, see below).
Parents have lost the right to demand marriage or kids to their children. People are encouraged to “do what they love”, and the idea of having a career has almost entirely disappeared.
The world has never been so free from societal pressures.
This gives one less reason for people to meet up or assemble.
However (and that is paradoxical), the future has never been so bleak.
Millennials have lost 20% of purchasing power compared to their parents, and GenZ will be even worse off.
Global warming is altering the climate so fast that people can see it year after year. Earth Overshoot Day is advancing annually.
As such, millennials and GenZ have other things to do than party or chill together. They are increasingly conscious that they can’t afford to waste their future. They know they have to start building it now.
In one of the surveys regarding the decrease in alcohol consumption, many millennials responded that drinking impacted their productivity.
They don’t want to spend their day dreaming about a better world smoking weed as their parents did. The great economic growth is over. They know they can’t afford to waste time.
They know the world is about to get tougher. They know they better prepare themselves for it than get high.
To summarize, the lack of issues to fight for has given fewer reasons for people to unite. The decrease in life quality has further increased individuals’ propensity to work for their future.
The result is a generation that takes their individual responsibilities and works for themselves.
3. There Are (Better?) Alternatives to Relationships
I have outlined how people form relationships based on shared characteristics, opinions, hobbies, and personalities.
Often, individuals find themselves at odds with the community they were born into. Their interests, views of the world, and ambitions are completely different than that of their parents, school peers, or neighbors.
When this is the case, the only way they can find people to relate to is the Internet. Forums and social platforms have made it easy to find hundreds of people…just like you.
For people that used to feel lonely and isolated because of the lack of people to share their passion with, the internet has been a real breath of fresh air.
Why going out with colleagues or friends you don’t enjoy the company of if you can chat, share, and interact with people you like on the Internet?
The Internet also made it easier to meet people. No more awkward moments, users can hide behind an avatar and have at least a part of their social needs met.
The problem with internet-based relationships is that while it does help people break out of loneliness, it is most of the time, not enough. Relationships are not only a matter of talking to someone. They are also a matter of touching and seeing. Skyping with a friend or a relative is not as satisfying as meeting them up in real life.
However, meeting people in real life, while more fulfilling, is harder to do than discussing with them behind a computer screen.
Faced with the two options, most introverts will choose the technological alternative and leave out the real-life one.
As a result, loneliness increases, and people engage less in relationships than they used to.
4. Millennials Are More Fragile, So Relationships Hurt Them More
Millennials are much more fragile than their parents were.
In his famous video, Simon Sinek calls millennials lazy and unfocused, oblivious to hard work and efforts because whatever they did, they were congratulated for it.
Millennials are the generation that got everything they wanted from their parents, including participation trophies.
As a result, they can hardly fight for anything because they never really had to (I can confirm). They can hardly face failures and hardships because these were almost absent from their lives when they were kids.
The rarity of difficulties in millennials’ lives has subsequently marked them for life when they did have to go through hardship.
Traumatized from the experience, they sworn themselves to never go through that again.
As such, millennials are the generation that invented ghosting.
Ghosting consists of completely disappearing from someone’s life to avoid breaking up with them (be it a friend, or romantic interest).
Faced with the choice of fighting, confronting, and standing up to someone’s tears and wrath VS simply running away, the second option is quickly chosen.
Why going through uncomfortable feelings if you can avoid them altogether?
The fact that millennials are more fragile and more sensitive than their parents makes them ill-suited for relationships. Relationships are difficult to maintain, they can hurt, they disappoint and they can overly complicate someone’s life for…not much, at the end of the day.
This characteristic of mental fragility is further expressed through the ongoing censorship demands on university campuses.
Millennials are so fragile that as basic and harmless as they appear, ideas have been banned to not “shock” people with certain…sensitivities.
Whole books have been written on the topic (Cultural dementia, The coddling of the American mind, etc), incidents have happened, comedians have been censored, films have been censored and protests (about invented pretexts such as gender) have been organized. I will therefore not discuss this issue much further.
Notwithstanding, it is clear that millennials’ fragility has left them unprepared for the chaos that relationships can be.
Unable to face hardships, they run away or avoid it altogether.
I remember my grandmother (born in 1922) mocking when it was announced that a “psychological support had been established” after diverse incidents in society.
“We didn’t get any support after the war”, she used to say.
Lest we forget it was her generation that built the world we are sitting on at the moment.
To summarize, we have seen that the difficulty and risks to maintain relationships increased while the perks remained similar. Simultaneously, millennials became less suited to engage in relationships and deal with hardships and breakups that unfold.
It is therefore no wonder that they are not as willing to be social as their parents were in the past.
5. The Gap Between Expectations and Reality Has Widened
When I was a teenager, my social skills sucked.
My dating skills were nonexistent.
Since I didn’t know any better, I learned how to deal with people from the only source of information I had access to: TV.
The problem was that relationships, as portrayed on TV, were seldom similar to relationships in real life.
It is in fact, freaky to see how little resemblance they have.
But I didn’t know any better. As a result, I would go into the world and say whatever fictional characters were saying and expected similar outcomes.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen.
It took me a certain amount of time before understanding that whatever I saw on TV did not portray reality.
When I finally focused on real-life to improve my situation, in reality, things started to change.
The expectations I had of relationships were so different than what relationships were in real life that it remained a part I most struggled with in my life.
This game of expectations is even more vicious on social media.
Users look at their friends living a life in appearance perfect. They expect to get the same thing.
When it doesn’t come, they grow frustrated.
The problem is that nothing on social media is portrayed as it is in reality.
Users see their friends getting married. They don’t see them fighting, struggling, or having doubts. They don’t see the weird first date, or how sex sucked the first time.
They only see two happy people getting married effortlessly.
They only see the event. They don’t see the process.
Unfortunately, social media only communicate events. They don’t communicate processes, even though it’s there. Behind any event, there is a process.
This “event-like” celebration of relationships further participates in the creation of unrealistic expectations by users.
They go into the world expecting to get their own wedding picture and the 250 likes that go with it. But it doesn’t work well. They don’t understand that what they seek out takes time and effort to build. They don’t understand that it is not easy.
They seek the event instead of building the process.
In the worst cases, whatever event they seek doesn’t even exist at all.
On the dating side, the expectation-reality gap has been fueled by a perceived abundance when it comes to relationships. In cities, there are people everywhere, and every night, individuals have dozens of social options to choose from.
As explained here, abundance in social relationships has skewed the game. Supply has led every player to strive for someone better than themselves while simultaneously making fewer efforts to get them, which leads people to remain single.
Perceived abundance makes them think they have the luxury to choose someone corresponding to their irrational expectations, while that person whether doesn’t exist or is completely out of their league.
Media, particularly social media, have made users believe that whatever social happiness they see on the platforms is true, is reachable and that they deserve the same.
None of this is correct.
Media have had the talent to inflate people’s expectations of what awaits them. Media only portray what’s positive and never really show the work that has been done behind.
When we fail at relationships, when they don’t fulfill us as much as they should…we give up.
At least, the video game doesn’t let down.
The Bottom Line
Technology, the current economic and societal context, education, and alternatives to fulfill social needs have made relationships difficult.
As a result, millennials and GenZ changed their social consumption patterns and approach their lives differently. They put more emphasis on striving to get a high quality of life they’re not sure they will obtain rather than partying “no tomorrow” style.
Furthermore, I remain persuaded that the loneliness paradox plays a huge role as well.
We may experience the need to go out and meet people, but the cost to do so is so high that we rather turn ourselves towards technology. It may be less satisfying, but it is also less costly and less risky.
This results in a loss of social skills and further incapacity to bond with people over time. The consequence is invariably, loneliness.
If we hope to combat this epidemic, we will have to rethink the relationship we have with technology.
Rather than being a problem, I actually believe that tech is the solution.
Technology doesn’t have to stop at the screen. It can go further and help people reach out to each other.
It can be a catalyst for the establishment of relationships between people, instead of being an obstacle.
It all comes down to how we use it.