Do Millennials have no friends?

I recently read an article claiming that 22% of Millennials say they have no friends. And then many other articles with the same figure. This made me feel sad. Some of the articles further distinguished between “close” and “best” friends, so here we’re presumably talking about just any friend of any level at all.

Sure, being a human I have felt peaks and troughs of loneliness over my life-history to date, but I’m not sure I’d cope well if I felt like I had no-one in the ‘friend’ category at all. The thought that nearly a quarter of the young-but-definitely-adult generation feel that way today was quite shocking and depressing to me.

Outside of my personal feelings, it is an increasingly well established fact that loneliness – which I have to imagine strongly associates with having no friends – is not only extremely unpleasant for most folk, but actually harmful to ones physical and mental health. People with stronger social connections may literally live longer. One can go too far with the ‘you may as well take up smoking’ type headlines, but there does seem to be something potentially life-and-death within this subject.

But before getting too upset for the local young adults, I did want to check in on the data itself. Millennials do get a bad rap. Most famously perhaps, we’re all supposed to believe that the reason young people don’t own houses is nothing to do with the fact houses cost an insane amount of money, and everything to do with their high expenditure on avocado toast. Somehow a stereotype seems to have developed in some quarters that the reason not every millennial has a job is because they’re lazy (nothing to do with the supply side of the job market, naturally), they’re selfish, narcissistic and constantly going around maliciously killing various industries and destroying other venerable and much-loved institutions, including DUIs, divorce and porn. After all of that, headlines that involve the word “Millennials” do tend to induce a slight level of skepticism in me.

Reassuringly, it turns out friendship data was from a survey conducted by a reputable enough survey company, YouGov. And they were good enough to publish the full, albeit heavily aggregated, results of the survey itself. OK, in a horrible PDF format, but it didn’t take too long to extract the details of the folk who responded ‘zero’ to the “How many friends do you have?” question in a way conducive to constructing a few breakdowns of these folks below, and satisfying a bit of personal curiosity.

TLDR: Yes, 22% of Millennials did say they had no friends, the highest of all surveyed generations. But it’s not clear to me at all that it’s because they’re Millennials. For example, 27% of black people said the same. And what does ‘friend’ even mean in this survey?

Have some reading time on your hands? Well, in accordance to the guidance given in the original data file, any groups where the number of participants surveyed was less than 50 will not be shown, because these very small samples are considered by YouGov to be statistically unreliable. I will however note what the ‘missing’ categories are, in case it helps clarify who is or isn’t in each category.

Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of other statistical significance info in the data file; no confidence intervals or the like. So it’s not clear to me to what extent small percentage differences should be considered “real”. But they are a reputable enough company who have at least taken the time to re-weight the respondents to represent a base of all US adults and talk about the limitations of too-small samples, so I’m going to go wild and assume that we might care about at least the larger differences.

By generation

Missing categories:
– Gen Z (people born in the year 2000 and later)
– Pre-Silent generation (1927 and earlier)

So this is the data the articles focussed on. Sure enough, Millennials were more likely to report having no friends than the other groups. Are we seeing a uniquely lonely generation? Well, it’s possible. However, to be honest, it’s not possible to tell if Millennials are “special” here from this data.

There are other potential explanations, including that – by definition – each generation here must have been a different age when they were surveyed.

The survey was carried out in 2019, and YouGov here defines a Millennial as being someone born between 1982 and 1999 (the exact definition varies depending on who you ask – so always best to check the data source!). So these folk were between 20 and 37 years old. Compare that to the seemingly more friend-enabled ‘Silent Generation’, who in this analysis would have been between 74 and 91 years old.

Perhaps – and I’m not presenting any evidence here to suggest you should believe this over any other hypothesis – it’s just normal that older people are less likely to report having no friends than younger people.

Are changes in the number of people reporting having no friends really a ‘cohort effect’, which is what a lot of the headlines about this survey imply? More data-digging would be needed to determine that, as opposed to whether this is, for instance, an aging effect.

An aging effect is a change in variable values which occurs among all cohorts independently of time period, as each cohort grows older.

A cohort effect is a change which characterizes populations born at a particular point in time, but which is independent of the process of aging.

A period effect is a change which occurs at a particular time, affecting all age groups and cohorts uniformly.

Source: Distinguishing aging, period and cohort effects in longitudinal studies of elderly populations

By gender

Not a whole lot to say here. Males seem slightly more likely to report having no friends than females, but the gender differences are much less than between generations. Without knowing the confidence intervals of the responses it’s also hard to know how significant these differences are.

By region

Again, only relatively small differences are seen when the respondents are split up into what region of the US they live in.

By race

OK, here are some large differences again!

The difference between Black and White respondents – 16 percentage points – is actually the same level of difference as between Millennials and the generation with the very lowest % of people reporting having no friends.

It’s interesting that many of the articles reporting on this survey focused on the generation as opposed to the race. There may be a legitimate reason why, but it’s not self-evident to me. It seems if we’re worried that Millennials may be lonely, the same concern might be needed for non-white folk too.

By education level

The big differences keep on coming! At a glance, this looks like a strong positive link between having higher levels of education and having a friend.

By income

Can money buy you friends? Traditionally we tend to say no. But having a higher income sure does seem to reduce the likelihood of you feeling like you have no friends at all.

(I am not sure exactly what income was asked for – from the values, I’d assume this is something like annual household income, but should verify before stating that to be the case!)

By urbanity of area lived in

The traditionalist’s view that city living includes being surrounded by hordes of other people, but feeling personally lonely, seems directionally borne out in these results. Univariately at least, urban dwellers are more likely to report having no friends.

By marital status

Missing categories
– Civil partnership
– In a relationship, not living together
– Separated
– Other
– Prefer not to say

So is getting married the end of all friendships, with the happy couple dumping their pals so as to get on with journeying their way through mortgages, careers and other misc adulting? Seemingly not. People who are, or were, once married were a lot less likely to report having no friends than those who were not.

By whether being a parent or guardian of any children

Missing categories:
– Don’t know / Prefer not to say

Likewise, parenting doesn’t appear to remove your entire friendship circle (or at least if it does, maybe you end up replacing them all with new parenty-friends over the years). Having kids, especially ones who are now adults, seems to make you less likely to report having no friends.

So, to summarise:

Are millenials more likely than other well-represented generations to report having no friends in this survey? Yes, they are. But we need more data to understand if this is a “Millennial generation” phenomenon vs a “being in your 20-30s” phenomenon. After all, a 40-year-old has had longer to find a friend out there in the wilderness!

Millennials aren’t the only group to report having no friends

Applying the same analysis to the rest of the survey results shows the existence of several other ‘risk factors’ for reporting no friends.

Excluding the variables that show only a couple of percentage point differences between categories, these added-risk groups include:

  1. not being white
  2. having a low level of education
  3. having a low income
  4. living in an urban area
  5. not being or having been married
  6. not having children, especially of adult age

So there’s potential for confounding here. Let’s imagine a world where being born in the 1980-90s did not actually affect your friend count. If any of the above factors are over-represented in Millennials in comparison to other groups, we could still see the same overall effect.

I don’t intend to dig up all the stats correlating age with the 6 bullet points above for this post, but even a modicum of websearching reveals sensible-sounding sources with claims like:

Relative to members of earlier generations, millennials are more racially diverse, more educated, and more likely to have deferred marriage; these comparisons are continuations of longer-run trends in the population. Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.

Source: Are Millennials Different?

So that’s risk factors 1, 3 and 5 confounding away, mitigated perhaps by reverse-risk factor 2.

For reasons of age alone, it’s unlikely many millennials have adult children yet, and they don’t seem to be in a particular hurry to have any children at all. All this, whilst enjoying urban life, if they’re able to.

So, how to differentiate the root cause? Well, with the level of data published – and don’t get me wrong YouGov, I’m grateful any was! – it’s not really possible to. A more complex analysis using data at the individual person level, allowing us to look at the effect of generation controlling for other variables, and ideally comparing also with previous time series, would be the obvious start. Whilst that type of observational study is usually not able to prove causation beyond doubt, we might get closer towards understanding the likely fundamentals.

It didn’t escape my notice – although of course I am not going to prove this to be true here – that many of the higher risk groups are those that society has often appeared to value less highly – poor people, non-white people, less-educated people, the unmarried; think of the sections of society sometimes defined by or over-represented in low “socioeconomic status” groups. Perhaps policies designed to assist those our current social structure apparently does not help so much may have a bonus side effect in the realm of strengthening social connections – and all the health and life benefits that go alongside that.

What is a friend anyway?

After discussing this statistic with a friend (see what I did there? True story though, and thank you, correspondent) I was reminded that the definition of a friend is itself rather woolly. One person’s friend is another person’s acquaintance, colleague or window-cleaner.

“Friendship is difficult to describe,” said Alexander Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, who in his latest book, “On Friendship,” spends almost 300 pages trying to do just that. 

Source: Do Your Friends Actually Like You?

So another scenario in which millennials could be more likely than others to report having no friends – even if in reality they had the same level of social connections – would be if they define ‘friend’ differently, especially more stringently, than others. Some more qual-side digging into whether disparate generations define friends differently to each other would be useful to look into that hypothesis.

Related to definitions, there could also be something in how the question was asked. I did not see the original survey, but the Yougov write-up implies the question asked was

“Excluding your partner and any family members, how many of each of the following do you have?”

followed by a list comprising of “acquaintances”, “friends”, “close friends” and “best friends”.

Most of the articles focus only on the “friends” result, where the 22% zero figure is seen. OK, fine – taken in isolation, “close friends” and “best friends” sound like subsets of friends, right?

But if presented with each of those options on the same screen, perhaps respondents might categorise each person they know into an exclusive category. So if you pop your pal Jimmy into the “best friends” box, perhaps you don’t also add him into the basic “friends” box.

Perhaps you feel close to all your friends, so have 10 close friends but no “non-close” friends, except those you categorise as acquaintances. In this way, a very close-friend-fulfilled person might be included in the no friends bucket when analysed one question at a time.

If this was the case, whilst the articles aren’t reporting anything untrue; it may be misleading when taken in isolation. All this is only a theory of course, as I haven’t seen the precise flow of the original survey. Perhaps the questions were asked in a a way less likely to cause this issue. But we can tell that the 4 categories aren’t being used entirely as subsets of each other, as 25% of Millennials report having no acquaintances, vs only 22% having no friends; i.e. more Millennials have friends than acquaintances.

(Out of interest, 27% of Millennials reported no close friends, and 30% having no best friends – and yes, pedants, some people did report having more than one ‘best’ friend).

Anyhow, wild hypothesising aside: More knowledge does give us a higher chance of developing effective remedies, if remedies are indeed needed. Which they likely are, in my opinion, no matter what the precise count of Millennials involved is or why, given the dramatic impact of loneliness on people’s lives. This is an important line of research that should likely be pursued with the full resources and rigour that serious issues around health and well-being deserve.

But in the mean time, associations between loneliness and all sorts of negative health and well-being effects have been repeatedly demonstrated. So if we’ve societal levers to pull, or personal practices to enact that have the potential to reduce any level of friendlessness, let’s get on and do it.

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