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A new study highlights the loneliness of younger workers. What can employers do to combat feelings of isolation?
We tend to focus on loneliness as something that happens in old age, but loneliness can happen at any stage in a person’s life and a report out this week talks about the loneliness of young workers.
The US study from health insurer Cigna suggests that more than 80% of Generation Z employees [those born after 1995] and 69% of employed millennials [born in the 1980s to mid 90s] are lonely. The study of over 10,400 people in the US, including about 6,000 workers, also found that older workers are less likely to say they feel alienated by colleagues or emotionally distant from them. Is this worse now than in the past and is it in part due to the way we tend to pit different generations against each other?
The study also shows that younger workers are more likely than older ones to view their jobs as having less meaning and feel more friction between their values and those of their employer. Whether this has always been the case, with younger workers tending to more idealism, is not clear. Certainly employers we speak to have noticed a clear increase in questions from younger recruits about values, particularly sustainability. To some degree that is the result of the skills shortage. Workers with the requisite skills have a greater ability to pick and choose where they work.
What is interesting is that the study also shows how many younger workers tend to shy away from “real-world” interactions such as phone calls and face-to-face encounters in favour of email and text messages. The study’s authors say remote working may also be a factor in increasing loneliness and problems with face to face social skills.
Indeed one of the negatives with remote working is isolation, which is why being able to combine homeworking with some time in an office or other group location or regular meet-ups can give you the best of both worlds.
As with all things there are balances to be had – remote working can greatly relieve stress which affects mental well being, particularly at certain stages of your life such as when you have young children to pick up with a certain timeframe.
I’ve often wondered about how homeworking affects different groups. When you start your career, the workplace is often an important part of your social life. That’s not the same if you are dotted all over the place. I’m not sure if it is an issue for employers so much as a general issue for society. If we want to encourage more remote working [for instance, to combat climate change], do we not need to also restructure how we do that – whether in local hub offices or whether we provide some form of other local structures to encourage socialising, to reinvent our local neighbourhoods, stripped as they have been in many cases of the shops and amenities that bring people together?
Human beings are a social species. Young people are endlessly communicating, although a lot of that is on phones rather than face to face. Adolescence is a time of huge insecurities and it can be easier to communicate behind a phone than in person. Anxiety seems to be a symptom of our modern age and the tendency can be to retreat from social situations which increase that. It’s hard to know if technology helps or hinders. Probably both at the same time. I work with students who are connected globally in ways my generation never was, who are running international NGOs from their student rooms. I know young people who find it easier to speak about what they feel on internet forums than they would ever have felt in person.
The way the world is changing is so complex, with so many different, sometimes conflicting consequences that it is hard to disentangle them.
The important thing for employers is to be aware of the potential results of blanket policies and to offer alternatives, where possible.