One of the many things coronavirus has made redundant is a particular kind of meme: the “my favorite kind of plans are cancelled plans” kind. Pre-corona, it was vigorously shared on Instagram. Millennials have spent the past several years complaining about “plans”, and treating the outside world as a horrible burden; Zoomers, raised online, have followed suit.
One would think a worldwide lockdown — which has cancelled all our plans for the foreseeable future — would be exactly what these young people longed for. But when the concept was first introduced, I was a bit amused by the panic it was met with. Why were millennials posting about the trauma of cancelled 30th birthday parties they didn’t want to go to anyway? Why weren’t Zoomers delighted at the opportunity to retreat further into the digital world of Houseparty hangouts, Zoom parties and FaceTime dates?
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It was strange, pre-lockdown, to observe the young being so very un-vibrant. Fine, be a tired mum. Go to bed at 8pm when you’re 80. A farmer would understandably be exhausted at the end of the day. But a single 30-year-old with a desk job, one would presume, might still have a little zest for life — a desire for adventure, or, at the very least, experience.
I saw it in my friends as well — not Zoomers, but near or post 40. Asking about New Year’s Eve plans was met with a sour “nothing” or “watching a movie”; even an attempt to make drinks plans for a Friday night was like pulling teeth. A 2018 think piece in Vogue discussed the “staying at home movement” as “the ultimate indulgence”. A 2017 article in The Cut acknowledged that the familiar game of “cancel-reschedule ping-pong” usually ends in abandoning attempts to meet up entirely, but concluded: “doesn’t it also feel at least a little good to bail?”
I couldn’t relate. Cancelling plans constantly is rude and that “ping pong” game usually ends in someone giving up on more than just plans — no one likes to chase others around, so the end result is that we just forget those relationships entirely. This has always depressed me: I value friends and socialising. I like to meet up, in real life, with those I care for. Why would I want to waste my time lying around on the couch feeling sorry for myself?
I know the excuses people employ: I have social anxiety, I’m exhausted, I’m stressed, I’m broke, I’m an introvert, I’m an Aquarius, what is there even to do? But I don’t accept them. People have been broke, tired, stressed or shy for all of history, yet we remain social creatures. Why the desperation to avoid human connection?
One of the problems is social media. In the internet age, people believe that technology not only can, but should, replace face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder interactions. We attempt to do everything online — politics, dating, debating, socialising, learning, loving. The younger generations have never known anything else. Millennials and generation Z are more heavily reliant on smartphones and social media than older generations — so much so that their use is often reasonably viewed as an “addiction.” And they have been conditioned to conflate online interactions with actual communication, and to equate social media connections with real-life ones. In some ways, their lives have been made more convenient; in other ways, young people have suffered.
Take Tinder, for instance. This dating app, while claiming to connect people, actually does the opposite. Nancy Jo Sales, who wrote the infamous (if you ask dating app fanatics) article “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse”, for Vanity Fair told me:
“I don’t actually think the point of dating apps is to connect us with anything but the app. The whole point of it is to get you to keep using it.”
Indeed, dating apps have been designed like slot machines — they aim to get the player addicted, to keep swiping — offering the same dopamine hit you get when you hit the jackpot. Yet, ask a single person, and they will probably repeat the narrative offered by dating app companies: this is the best way to meet as many people as possible — why not expand your horizons? In fact, finding love is even less likely within the context of being offered seemingly endless choices, and we are less likely to commit. Overuse of social media or dating apps — the new normal in terms of meeting sexual partners — are shown to increase anxiety and depression, as well as to decrease self-esteem. Similarly, social media — which sells us the idea that we are connecting with thousands of people around the world, makes us feel lonelier and more disconnected.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no Luddite. The internet is an incredible resource, and I am grateful that I can do many aspects of my job comfortably, from my sofa. But I know I need more than that. I know my health and wellbeing depend on my connections to others — as does my work.
But the cancel-everything-to-wallow-at-home-in-the-dark movement is often framed as “self-care”. In truth, it is the opposite. “Self-care” — ensuring that we are mentally and physically healthy — requires personal relationships and physical contact with others. Both millennials and zoomers revel in anti-social behaviour compared to older generations. For millennials, even the thought of interacting with others can be repulsive. A 2018 survey of 1,200 UK employees found that they “look to avoid human interaction” in the workplace.
Rather than recognising the value of human connection, the younger generations have isolated themselves — and then justified this behaviour online by insisting it is a version of ‘self-care’. Research shows they are deluded: the happiest people are the ones who are sociable — or force themselves to be, even if they don’t feel like it. Laurie Santos, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology at Yale University and host of the podcast, The Happiness Lab, found that “happy people prioritise social relationships”. Referencing a paper by Marin Seligman and Ed Diener, Santos said:
“Strong social relationships are necessary for happiness — they’re not sufficient for happiness, but you can’t find happy people that don’t have them… And that means taking a hard look at your priorities to figure out if those social relationships are falling by the wayside.”
Not only that, but the dreaded “interactions with strangers” has been shown to improve our wellbeing, which means that talking to a barista or your Uber driver “can really bump up your mood”. It is not only a great way to build compassion for others and learn about those who share the world with you, but it makes you feel good.
Millennials and their Zoomer successors, for all their talk of self-care, are lonelier and more anxious than other age groups — and face rising rates of depression diagnoses. It’s the worst of both worlds: they neither make time to reflect by themselves — as this “alone time” is actually spent on phones or computers — nor are they out in the world, interacting with others and building intimacy. They become simultaneously incapable of being alone, yet refuse to connect with others in healthy and beneficial ways. And so they are lonelier than ever.
In other words, these anti-social generations are doing it exactly wrong.
Those who used to whine about having to leave the house — and post memes about how great it is to go to bed at 9pm alone — have got what they wished for: legally enforced isolation. There is no option even to make plans! The pressure is lifted — we are free to be alone, at home, all the time. And yet, only a few days into the lockdowns, social media was full of desperate posts, complaining of mental health crises. The stay-at-homers have been spooked.
And good thing too. Perhaps, when we come out of this, they’ll stop taking the world for granted. They’ll remember that it’s important to hug our friends, to reach out, to get up off the sofa, to talk to the person sitting next to you at the bar. They’ll realise that holing up at home — typing away angrily at whomever our latest target is; swiping through faces, hoping for a momentary jackpot; or posting selfie number 24 of 30, filtered just so, captioned to sell our audience on a life, mood, and nose we don’t have — doesn’t make you happy.
When they’re able to make plans, perhaps they won’t cancel. Maybe they’ll just turn up.