In Seeking to Stand Out, Gen Z Has Become the Loneliest Generation
If you shouted out your name in public, how many people do you think would respond? If you have a common name—Daniel for example—chances are you might get some people to turn around. But sharing your name with multiple classmates, friends, or co-workers is an experience that’s becoming much less common. Parents are increasingly prioritizing distinctiveness when picking out their kids' names. Joe Pinsker explained in a recent Atlantic article:
“American naming is now in a phase where distinctiveness is a virtue, which is a departure from the mid-century model of success: Today, you excel not by fitting in, but by standing out.”
In fact, there’s an entire industry of professional baby namers that has emerged out of this struggle to find an atypical appellation.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a unique name for your kid. All parents know their kids are special, and choosing a distinctive name is just one way to express it.
The problem arises when parents put too much pressure on their children to be different. Today, many parents are pushing their kids to acquire skills and experiences solely for the purpose of standing out from their peers. As I noted in a recent piece for Insider:
“Today's parents are investing an extraordinary amount of time seeking opportunities to provide their kids with unique experiences and skills to give them an edge in college admissions or a career. A Pew survey found that a majority of parents report that their children have participated in art lessons, music, or dance — although these activities were more common among wealthier families.”
They also face far more pressure from their parents to get into college. Compared to previous generations, young people today report facing far more familial pressure to attend college: Sixty percent say that growing up, their families expected them to go to a four-year college compared to less than half (43 percent) of Gen Xers and roughly a third (35 percent) of Baby Boomers. With the number of college applications at a record high, many parents, especially those with a college education, view extracurriculars as a way to give their children an edge in the college admissions process. Which for many is understood to be the key to a successful and happy life.
Some amount of competition is healthy, but intense and prolonged competition doesn’t come without consequences. A large-scale study of middle- and high-school students found that "teenagers value achievement more than caring, in large part because they think their parents do."
And it’s making kids miserable. When parents prioritize enrichment activities at the expense of other social opportunities, such as family dinners or having free time to spend with friends, it can lead to loneliness and feelings of social isolation. According to the American National Family Life Survey, a majority (56 percent) of Gen Zers say they were regularly lonely growing up, far higher than what earlier generations report. For instance, only 24 percent of baby boomers reported feeling lonely this often during their childhood.
Loneliness can have devastating consequences. According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.” And as Thompson notes in his piece, these side effects are already starting to come to a head for young Americans today. “Objective measures of anxiety and depression—such as eating disorders, self-harming behavior, and teen suicides—are sharply up over the past decade,” he writes.
This paints a pretty bleak picture. How do we strike a balance between encouraging our kids to stand out and be leaders, while not making them lonely and miserable? Well, part of the answer may lie in building and maintaining strong communities. As I’ve noted in my recent research, there are a number of ways to foster interactions and a sense of belonging. But it’s something that we too often ignore. As I wrote:
“Zoomers are dedicating much of their energy to seeking fulfillment through professional achievement, education, or individual pursuits — and it's becoming increasingly clear that this push is leaving these young people profoundly alone and adrift.”
There are many ways to be successful, to excel, or to be productive. But there is no substitute or shortcut to developing strong social ties. It’s not a new lesson, but one we keep forgetting to pass on to our kids.