Humans are inherently social beings. From an evolutionary perspective, we have relied on cooperation to survive and thrive. When our ancient ancestors first roamed the African savannah, collaboration was the only way to gain access to food, shelter and protection from attacks. The human mind is still wired to form and maintain relationships with others. Many of our conscious and subconscious decisions are driven by the primary need to belong. Two million years ago, early humans had to find ways to overcome disease, predators and enemies. Now we’re faced with a modern challenge: loneliness.
Loneliness is a growing epidemic in most developed countries. Young people aged 16 to 24 feel more lonely than any other age group, including people aged 65 and over. Indeed, 73% of Gen-Z report feeling alone sometimes or always. Loneliness can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. And people who experience social isolation have a 32% higher risk of early death. It’s a strange paradox, Gen-Z are hyperconnected in the virtual world but socially disconnected. The internet, mobile phones and video games have opened a multiverse of new connections and opportunities. Yet digital interactions have failed to replace the need to connect on an emotional level in the physical world.
Millennials were the last analogue generation; remembering life before digital technologies hoovered up our time. The average American will end up spending 21 years, 4 months and 29 days online across the course of their life. Similarly to how Baby Boomers need to learn digital skills, we will soon have to teach Gen-Z and Gen Alpha basic social skills.
At the same time, many of the traditional institutions that promote a sense of belonging are in decline. Church attendance has dropped in the West, and most young people can’t afford to buy a house or raise a family. What’s more, climate anxiety is producing a constant state of distress. Gen-Z are becoming adults during an era of societal collapse. Endless choice has transformed into a psychological burden. Young people are overstimulated but under-socialized. Take online dating, the average user swipes 50 to 100 candidates a day but feels less satisfied and more depressed. Choice overload explains why Gen-Z are ditching smartphones for dumb phones.
Young people are having fewer shared moments and memories. The collective experience has lost ground to individual pursuits. Japan offers a window into what the future might look like for young people in most developed countries. In Japan, there’s a social phenomenon known as Hikikomori, where young adults withdraw from society and seek extreme social isolation. The Japanese government estimates the country has 1.5 million Hikikomori, but experts believe the number is much higher. It has even spawned rent-a-family services in the country, offering the illusion of warmth. Meanwhile, in South Korea, the government is paying young recluses to leave their home. Technological progress doesn’t seem like the answer to the loneliness epidemic. The proliferation of large language models (LLMs) has birthed the arrival of AI girlfriends and boyfriends. Young people are seeking connection in a world which prioritises individual desires above collective needs.
The pursuit of convenience is removing social interactions and producing loneliness. We are designing a world void of human contact. When we go to the supermarket, machines scan our items with no need to say hello, goodbye or thank you. Delivery services will drop off our shopping without the need to leave the house. We can work from home and speak to people via digital screens. Social interaction is a wasteful activity if viewed through the lens of cold hard numbers. But when viewed through human eyes, social interaction is what makes us inherently human. The disappearance of third places—a social space separate from work and home—has exacerbated the problem. Youth culture has a rich history in cafes, clubs, libraries and parks. But many young people now feel priced out of physical experiences. The virtual world has become a vessel for creativity and self-expression, otherwise inaccessible in the physical world.
The loneliness epidemic represents a long-term challenge for companies. Brand building and growing market share become more expensive in a socially isolated world. Roblox, Fortnight and Minecraft are the new World Cup, Summer Olympics and Super Bowl. However, unlike traditional media, people are not all experiencing the same thing at the same time. There’s no space for collective memory. All the while, the obsession with digital attribution prevents brands from creating moments of magic in real life.
Adverting once used creativity to unite people and make brands part of the culture. Nowadays, programmatic ads simply sell things to individuals, not groups. There’s a missed opportunity to create culturally relevant moments and platforms to help young people struggling with loneliness. In the 21st century, brands and agencies have the chance to uplift communities and equip individuals with the tools to live a flourishing life. Examples include Dove’s self-esteem project, Hershey’s helping teens build critical social skills and Deutsche Telekom kicking off a summer of joy, youth and freedom.
Brands have the platform and resources to tackle the loneliness epidemic facing young people. Not only is it the right thing to do, but good for business. The first step on the journey is understanding the challenges facing young people. Unless marketers are aware of the social realities of young people—they risk not reading the room—and saying or doing the wrong thing. Next, brands can collaborate with youth organizations, charities and creators already tackling youth loneliness. This isn’t about being the hero but sharing your platform to inspire social change.
Finally, when the above actions have been taken, companies can break away from the traditional corporate content pillars, offering entertainment or useful tools, resources and guidance to help young people become more social. This is a chance to bring warmth and fun into an increasingly lonely and isolated world. Briefs don’t get much better than this.