Chicago — Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General called widespread loneliness a public health epidemic, posing health risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. For some Gen Z in Chicago, the epidemic has been caused by more reasons than one.
For Stephan Miller, 25, the roots of the epidemic can be traced back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after COVID restrictions loosened, the Chicago native noticed a shift in his willingness to do pre-pandemic activities like hang out with friends, go to parties, concerts or bars.
“For some reason, it just hasn’t felt as exciting,” he said. “I guess you get used to staying at home for so long that it becomes the norm. Now, I don’t feel like going out like I used to.”
That hasn’t changed his need for social interaction, though, a need he admits isn’t being met.
“All I do now is go to work, go home, then sleep,” he said. “I talk to my friends every now and then, but they live too far for us to hangout. If I'm being honest, I miss the way things were in that I got to hang out with people I care about more often.”
Damon Matthews, 27, agrees that the pandemic made Americans more lonely but to him, the epidemic is mainly a reflection of an increasing societal reliance on social media for entertainment, comfort and meaning.
“I think we’ve been trying to use social media to fill voids that only a community can fill,” he said. “People say ‘I get to connect with my friends on Facebook and Twitter’ but I think if that was enough, we wouldn’t even have this problem. People need sports teams, community events, churches. The things we grew up with.”
According to a report by the surgeon general’s office, many traditional indicators of community involvement, including with religious groups, clubs, and labor unions, have been declining in the US for decades. In 2018, 16% of Americans reported that they felt very attached to their local community.
Matthews thinks those facts are the result of a “collective identity crisis.”
“We don’t know who we are as a country,” he said.
For Kennedy Green, 24, Matthew’s point is spot on.
“At this point it's cliche to say our country is more polarized than ever but it's true,” she said.
In 2022, the Pew Research Center reported that Republicans and Democrats increasingly view the opposing party and the people in that party in a negative light. The center found that 72% of Republicans regarded Democrats as more immoral, and 63% of Democrats said the same about Republicans. Meanwhile both parties weren’t that popular with the American public, with 41% having a very or somewhat favorable view of the Democratic Party and 37% having a favorable impression of the Republican Party.
Green said that dynamic has put everyone on edge, afraid to talk about what they believe and more likely to keep their true thoughts to themselves.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re surrounded by people,” she said. “You can still feel lonely when you can’t bring your whole self to conversations.”