Last month, a video went viral featuring a young woman complaining that her 40-hour-a-week job netted her so little cash she could barely afford anything beyond rent on her apartment, and that the exhaustion she felt at the end of the day forced her to push off all of her necessary tasks, like grocery shopping and chores, to the weekend, essentially leaving her no free time.
“How do people manage to enjoy life while working full time?” she asks tearfully.
Some commenters had reasonable advice: Find a roommate, or trade in this minimum-wage job for another with less physical or emotional labor.
But many others reproached and mocked the young woman — emphasizing that life is misery, work is hard and you do nothing but toil until you die. It’s the human condition, so you may as well stop crying about it now.
There have been other videos like this recently, eliciting a similar reaction, much of it negative. In the comments, both sides make valid points. For most people throughout human history, hard work has consumed much of their days. Also, maybe there is a better way to live. Both things can be true.
And maybe tough love isn’t the right approach toward a generation that has never known a time before social media — especially when you consider that, for many young adults, the last leg of their time at home was spent very much at home, locked down and isolated by COVID-19 containment policies that kept students out of schools and most adults from human contact outside of their families.
Maybe young people who turn to social media to pour out their hearts aren’t really seeking advice, or a new job, or even sympathy — because the root problem isn’t the money or the hours or the grocery shopping.
It’s the isolation.
Many people live lonely lives, even though we live in one of the most connected eras. We may spend all day working, talking and interacting with others, but many of us do it within the same four walls where we eat and sleep. We may have dozens, even hundreds, of friends and supporters on social media, people with whom we think we have a personal connection. But many of us have far too few friends in real life — especially the kind of friends we feel comfortable spilling our hearts to, even just in a moment of weakness. We don’t know, after all, whether the problems of the young woman in the viral TikTok video are persistent, or if she just had no one else to talk to after having an especially bad day. (A follow-up video she posted suggests the latter.)
The number of Americans reporting that they have no close friends is up dramatically from the 1990s, according to the Survey Center on American Life. The American Time Use Survey noted, after the last census, that most Americans report spending fewer than three hours per week with friends, and just 10 hours per week with companions of any kind.
A Harvard study conducted in 2020 suggested that loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions, especially among young adults. More than 60% of adults aged 18-25 reported feelings of loneliness in October 2020, just as the world was beginning to understand the fallout from ongoing lockdowns.
Friends aren’t just for shared joy, either. One person commenting on the video suggested that medieval workers toiled endlessly in fields to simply give up and die around the time most modern Americans would be having a midlife crisis. But the truth is, when we were miserable in ages past, we were miserable together. We used to work and die in large family groups.
We used to have both shared joy and shared misery. For too many of us, that’s no longer the case.
For kids who finished their formative years during the COVID-19 lockdowns, these human connections are even harder to come by, and we owe them compassion.
It’s easy to point fingers at young people who have “failed to launch,” who seem unable to deftly land as adults in the real world. But the lockdowns effectively stole the last bit of their runway, depriving them of lasting friendships and closure on their school experiences. And then they were cast into a struggling economy to contend with stagnant wages, skyrocketing rent and expensive consumer goods.
There are consequences to all this at the ballot box. Loneliness, it turns out, can become a policy problem. Not only does it drive individuals to more extreme positions on issues, creating a fraught environment for electoral politics — particularly in an election year when tensions and emotions are already running at an all-time high — but it also changes how candidates speak to their target audiences.
Democrats are often thought of as the party of compassion, though few of the left’s policies ultimately achieve compassionate goals. Republicans may be connecting better to “average” Americans right now, but with long-term growth on the table, both parties could use a change in the language they use to address a population that needs compassion and maybe even sympathy.
The “tough love” approach that many on social media brought to a struggling young woman has become the de facto approach to struggling individuals across the spectrum. Groceries too expensive? Eat beans and rice! Money tight? Work two gigs! Immigration on your mind? What could possibly be the problem? Feeling concerned about your child’s education? Don’t worry, we’ve got it all in hand.
Humanity is more connected than it’s ever been, but we’re also more disconnected than perhaps at any time in human history, and this should be a wake-up call for everyone to be kinder — including political parties.