Tackling the Loneliness Epidemic in Teenage Girls and Young Women

The Maya Centre speaks to Millennial and Gen Z women and girls to understand the prevalence and manifestation of youth loneliness. We also announce our Women’s Hub as a way of building community bonds among young women.

29 May 2022

By Hannah Uguru

9-15 May marked Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, with the theme of loneliness setting the precedent for conversation. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that one in four feel lonely some or all the time, with long-term loneliness being a cause of anxiety and depression in some people. It’s a terribly isolating condition that many of us are afraid to divulge — one in five, in fact — but how can positive change begin if we don’t become more open?

Broadening our understandings of both loneliness and isolation should go beyond one week; the endeavour needs to last a lifetime. It’s this consideration of lifelong learning that challenged us to think about the feeling of social seclusion in the context of age. Data analysis on the matter reveals a surprising trend: feelings of loneliness do not exponentially grow with age as we imagine, nor are young people among the Gen Z and Millennial cohorts anomalously lonely. Rather, emotional narratives for both individuals and generations are cyclical, mapping out different life points like first leaving education and home, potential first marriages, potential first divorces, retirement and worsening health via advanced age-related conditions.

As a community-focused charity, The Maya Centre offers both cultural and age-inclusive support, but we mainly notice our clientele being women in their 30s to 50s, i.e., mature adulthood. We’re keen to make a meaningful impact across the age spectrum. So, we spoke to three Gen Z women and girls to gather first-hand insight of their different emotional and social concerns.

Teens feel misunderstood

Photo by SDI Productions

Surveys consistently find loneliness to be a theme most prevalent in teenagers and young adults, often subverting the preconceived notion that this is largely a problem for older people. A 2017 poll on the frequency of loneliness by age in England found that young people aged 16-24 were almost double as likely to feel lonely “some of the time” or “often/always” at 33%, compared to 17% for those aged 65 and older.

Despite teenagers often being surrounded by people, from other children at school to family at home, the social outcast sentiment persists. Here, it’s important to distinguish between the typically conflated terms “loneliness” and “isolation”. Age UK defines loneliness as “a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact. It refers to the perceived quality of the person’s relationships.” Conversely, isolation is an objective measure of the size of someone’s social circle. “It is about the quantity and not quality of relationships”, they add. Though the two expressions often overlap, they are distinct.

Speaking to Kimberley, a 17-year-old sixth form student, she shared that the feeling of being misunderstood contributes to the phenomenon of feeling lonely but not socially isolated. “You are constantly told that during puberty, you’re going to go through changes, including emotional ones. As a result, adults commonly disregard your feelings saying you’re just being moody, especially towards girls. So many girls don’t have an outlet unless they have friends to relate to them.”

Interestingly, a study on gender and loneliness found that while women typically had larger social circles than men and reported being less socially isolated, they were more likely to feel lonely. A UK survey on loneliness in children found a similar gendered trend. Though researchers have posited a credible theory that men are less inclined to admit to loneliness due to external cultural factors surrounding masculinity and emotions, it’s also possible that certain social ideas projected onto girls and women may lead to teenage girls, in particular,  believing their voices aren’t being heard or valued.

Kimberley offered these concluding thoughts: “To combat loneliness I’d say acknowledge that teenagers’ feelings matter and don’t write them off as hormones. Really, you could say that for all women. The line ‘Are you on your period?’ is so notorious. Don’t make women feel like they are too feminine or too masculine because that’s silly, and it makes you feel like you have to act a certain way to be accepted or even have to exaggerate your feelings to not be put into a box you feel like you don’t fit into.”

Rapid change in your 20s can feel unsettling

Photo by recep-bg

Our 20s are usually defined by a multitude of firsts that can have a tumultuous effect on our personal relationships: first full-time job, first serious romantic relationship, first experience of heartbreak, loss or grief and so on. Along with teens, people in their 20s, who represent the older side of Gen Z and younger Millennials, often report feeling lonely at a higher frequency than older adults of the Generation X and Baby Boomer cohorts.

Nadine, a 27-year-old civil servant, talked about how navigating the abundance of learning curves prominent during this decade can feel overwhelming, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: “I think COVID-19’s affected a few of us significantly. I feel like I lost out on my mid-twenties, and I’ve suddenly been catapulted into my late twenties, where I’m meant to be a fountain of wisdom. I have no idea what I’m doing.” She adds that seeing peers at different life stages compounds the sense that it’s just you against the whole world, saying, “It’s also extremely lonely coming out of a relationship at 27 and not wanting to disturb your friends in happy and loving relationships.”

Placing romantic relationships in the framework of counselling, findings show that Gen Z and Millennial couples are seeking both joint and individual counselling at unprecedented rates. 2017 data on marriage counselling, for instance, identified couples aged 25 to 30 as the most likely to attend joint therapy, at 31%. Though today’s young women and girls are less likely to centre their lives around romantic relationships, greater accessibility of knowledge and language regarding mental health is contributing to them being more open to outside intervention at significantly earlier ages than previous generations, according to experts at The Maya Centre. Nadine expressed that she uses therapy as a guiding tool for her life and her interactions with others, relaying, “Therapy is definitely needed to help form self-identity and to also help heal wounds around isolation and interpersonal issues. Hyper self-reliance and independence shouldn’t be glorified. It needs to be challenged as well because humans are social creatures.”

Urban Loneliness — young women feel alone in the big city

Photo by martin-dm

Akin to feeling lonely and misunderstood in our teen years despite frequent interactions with other people, life in a big city can be so fast-paced we don’t even have the time to relax and connect. A large case study on UK cities found that people self-reported feelings of loneliness increased by 2.8% for every additional 1000 housing units within one kilometre of their home, while their self-reported social isolation increased by 11.4%.

A defining feature of cities is their transient population, with multicultural swathes of people coming and going 24/7. This phenomenon has been suggested as a partial cause of urban loneliness by psychologists, especially among young people. According to The Roots of Loneliness Project, “A large population of non-natives can make people feel ungrounded, while young people often leave after a few years to settle down in the suburbs. It can be hard to form a solid group of friends when people are always coming and going.”

Cities often harbour younger populations due to the increased work opportunities on offer. The average age of a resident in Britain’s capital city of London is 35.8 years, compared to 44.1 years in the surrounding South East region and 41.9 years in the UK as a whole. This means that younger people are more exposed to social instability than older people. With more women in the workforce than ever before, we’re also seeing Gen Z and Millennial women pursue professional growth and hectic lifestyles, much like their male peers. The Roots of Loneliness Project also identified this as a potential problem: “Long hours spent at work are often required to afford living in an expensive city and everyone around us seems to be deep into the career ‘rat race.’” This is particularly important to think about from a gendered perspective, given that female graduates can expect to earn £4000 less in their first job post-university than their male counterparts.

Sneha, a 25-year-old music marketing intern from London, echoed both of these sentiments, lamenting, “These days everyone is so concerned about themselves, they are not comfortable meeting up. Price rises for travel have led to people moving out of London and not commuting as much as before. So, I’m often stuck hanging out by myself.”

Nadine, who also lives in London, felt the same: “Living in a big city can be extremely lonely.”

Further considering the cost of living’s impact on her social life, along with the pandemic’s influence, Sneha assumes, “[COVID-19’s] increased loneliness and isolation among women my age. It’s caused anxiety and depression due to the loneliness. I’m losing contact with friends who are moving outside of the city because of rising prices.”

Sneha suggests less cost prohibitive events and cheaper travel as a solution: “Young women may feel less lonely if there were more social events by bars that were open to all. It would also be good to have cheaper events with offers such as 50% off; a working discount on events for offices to encourage people to start going out again in Central London and within the city; offers on the tube services to encourage people to use it more.

The Maya Centre’s Women’s Hub is an opportunity to engage Gen Z and Millennial women in their local area

Photo by Thomas Barwick

Launching in June, the Women’s Hub is a community wellbeing project offering a range of activities:

  • 1:1 advice, advocacy and signposting from Community Navigators
  • Peer support groups
  • Wellbeing workshops and activities
  • Women Leader Group
  • Women’s Forum

The project’s focus is on women’s participation and co-design, with an emphasis on involving young women in community planning and development, as this group is  underrepresented in leadership roles. The Maya Centre aims to give typically vulnerable and/or marginalised women a greater voice, choice and control.

Since planning, we’ve recruited four amazing Community Navigators who will help build a Women’s Leader Group in Islington, with influence in the surrounding boroughs of Hackney, Haringey and Camden. We’re really excited to provide more details on the initiative once everything is ready, so stay tuned for our planned launch event next month!