The Millennials' Loneliness Gap and the Religion Factor

By Richard Cimino

The millennial generation has lately become the source of a lot of angst for older Americans—from concern about how these young adults are driving the growing rate of religious non-affiliation to, more recently, news reports of an alleged epidemic of loneliness among this generation.

On the latter concern, a new study casts doubt about such an epidemic, but finds that a combination of religious involvement, family life, and geographic stability tend to be the best preventive measures for loneliness—commitments that the younger generation lacks.

In the study by the American Enterprise Institute, Daniel A. Cox, Ryan Streeter, and David Wilde note that youth have always felt greater social loneliness than older people.

Many of the news reports relied on a question on a YouGov poll where 30 percent of millennial respondents said they often or always feel lonely.

The institute’s Survey on Community and Society is based on a modified version of a University of California loneliness scale, which is based on an index of 19 questions to measure feelings of loneliness.

The co-authors find that the rate of loneliness among the general public is low—the majority of Americans feel lonely either rarely, 42 percent, or never or almost never, 17 percent. Only 7 percent of Americans said they often feel lonely.

Millennials do have a higher rate of loneliness than older generations. Nearly half, 48 percent, of them are lonely at least once in a while, compared to 37 percent of Generation Xers and 30 percent of baby boomers. Eight percent of millennials say they are often lonely.

The youngest generation of adults tend to experience more loneliness because they have not formed the social networks and families that older people have. Yet Cox, Streeter, and Wilde find differences in the levels of loneliness among millennials depending on their social and religious ties.

It is often not so much the beliefs of particular religions that decrease feelings of loneliness as much as religious attendance and involvement.

Worship matters

Americans in general who are members of religious congregations are less likely to feel lonely.

The study finds that 45 percent of Americans who do not belong to a congregation feel lonely at least once in a while compared to 35 percent of those who belong to a church or other house of worship.

There is not a clear linear relationship between attendance and loneliness. Only 23 percent of people of Americans who attend services several times a week report they are lonely at least once in a while. But weekly and monthly attenders report being lonely at about the same rate, 35 percent and 37 percent, respectively.

Although younger adults attend religious services less often than older Americans, such activity has a much stronger effect on loneliness among millennials, according to Cox, Streeter, and Wilde.

The researchers find that a majority, 54 percent, of millennials who never attend religious services feel lonely at least occasionally in contrast to 37 percent of those who attend weekly or more often.

The effect of attendance on loneliness diminishes in each successive generation; 25 percent of baby boomers who attend at least once a week report occasional loneliness compared with 37 percent of baby boomers who never attend.

Getting married and staying in a community with strong social ties are other commitments that decreased loneliness among millennials.

The study cautions that other social involvement may not have the same effect of religious participation. For instance, millennial involvement in political groups and activism did not have the same positive effect on loneliness and actually exacerbated these feelings among such young participants.

Gender gap

The researchers also find that religious attendance seems to have a much stronger effect among men than among women. More than half of men who do not attend religious services feel lonely once in a while or more often, compared to only 30 percent of men regularly attending.

But women who never attend are only somewhat more likely to feel lonelier (at least some time) than regularly attending women.

The study also finds that the “loneliness gap” is significant for Americans who live in areas surrounded by people of different religions.

Six in 10 Americans who interact with people of different religious views feel lonely at least once in a while and 18 percent feel lonely often. In sharp contrast, those whose primary associations are with people who share their religious beliefs are half as likely to be lonely.

Cox, Streeter, and Wilde conclude that millennials are not much lonelier than baby boomers when controlling for religious activity and family and community commitment.

Yet they see one worrying sign, namely that rootedness in a community can both safeguard against loneliness and carry a strong element of homogeneity that can discourage people from associating with those religiously different from themselves.

“This presents a challenge to civic leaders who aspire to create an environment in which happiness and diversity coexist more robustly in the future,” they state.

Image by nasir khan, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Image by CCCI YG, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Sheila Sund, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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