How 2 Millennials Fight Loneliness

  • Millennials and Gen Zers are particularly burdened by unaffordable housing and loneliness. 
  • Car-centric neighborhoods with few shared spaces exacerbate loneliness, research has found.
  • Two women in the Nashville area told Insider how their housing has affected their social connections. 

Bailey moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2015 after graduating from college with a degree in music business. The Indiana native dreamed of working in the music industry and becoming a singer. 

She moved into a walkable neighborhood in downtown Nashville and paid $500 a month to rent a room in a house with roommates. But she quickly realized she couldn’t make ends meet in the industry — she was losing money on shows after paying the band. So she took part-time jobs at a nonprofit and a coffee shop.      

“It’s hard to make it unless your parents are floating all your bills,” she said of living in Nashville and breaking into the music business.

Despite her career setbacks, Bailey built a strong community in her neighborhood, at her church, and through her jobs. She could walk almost everywhere, including to her coffee-shop job, and felt safe jogging in the neighborhood. She credits the neighborhood’s walkability, shared spaces, and dense housing with boosting her social connections. 

“Living close to public spaces and living close to public free events — that’s a huge part of the way that I’ve met people,” the now 30-year-old said. “I go to running groups, I go to farmers markets and events and, you know, you go to a farmers market with one friend, somebody runs into somebody else that they know and then you guys become friends.”

Psychologists say the loose connections, or incidental interactions, you build in your community — in addition to closer friendships — are key to establishing a sense of belonging and avoiding loneliness. And those ties are much easier to form in neighborhoods with welcoming shared spaces and programming. 

But Bailey’s income hasn’t kept up with rising rents and living costs. She didn’t get a raise in the five years she worked at the nonprofit and the full-time position she expected to be promoted to never materialized. She moved out of her walkable downtown neighborhood, called 12 South, which is now gentrified and unaffordable, she said. 

She’s since moved six times, largely because of rent increases and inadequate living situations. In April, she and her two roommates were forced to move out of their three-bedroom home after just five months because their landlord wouldn’t deal with a squirrel infestation in the house.

Bailey, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, now works a full-time job in retail. She likes it but still doesn’t make enough money to feel financially secure or live in the neighborhood she wants to. 

“I can’t save up money for a house. I can’t put a lot into savings,” she said. “I can’t quickly pay off a credit card. I can’t go on vacation unless it’s, like, the cheapest option.” 

She isn’t alone. As house prices and rents have surged beyond most Americans’ budgets, younger people are increasingly unable to afford to live where they want to. Communities with more greenery and shared space that facilitate connection are much more expensive to live in, meaning millennials and Gen Zers are being priced out of places that could help them stave off loneliness.

Nashville is experiencing a particularly severe affordable-housing crisis. The Tennessee capital has welcomed a surge of about 400,000 new residents over the past decade. Not coincidentally, housing prices in the city have doubled during that time.

She now pays $850 to live in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse in a residential neighborhood called Madison on the edge of Nashville. The home is new and the neighborhood is nice, but it’s not walkable or close to public spaces.

“I have to drive to grocery stores. I have to drive to parks. I have to drive really anywhere that I want to go,” she said. 

Bailey said her parents suggested she move to a suburb outside Nashville, where she might be able to buy a home. But she fears feeling isolated and lonely in a new place, far from the friends and community she spent years building. 

“In a time where my housing has been really up in the air over eight years, and my job situation has been really up in the air, the thing that I’ve had are my friendships and my community,” she said. “Moving like 30, 40 minutes, getting a job and a house in a suburb would be me living just out of reach of the only thing that I’ve had to count on in my life the last eight years.” 

Dating and not finding the long-term relationship she wants has also been an isolating experience. It doesn’t help that being single makes life more expensive. She can’t share a one-bedroom apartment or split car payments and other expenses like couples can. This so-called “single’s tax” is worse for women than for men, research has found.

“I expected to be married by now,” Bailey said. “My whole life, especially growing up in church, it’s like, you’re gonna go to college, you’re gonna meet somebody, you’re gonna get married. And so that’s been lonely.”

Historic Main Street with Red Brick Storefronts, parked cars and Grays Pharmacy in Franklin, Tennessee, a suburb south of Nashville, Williamson County, Tenn.

Franklin, Tennessee’s historic Main Street.

Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Paying more for a connected community 

Liz Hughes, her husband, and their 9- and 6-year-old kids moved nearly a year ago from their Nashville neighborhood, Bellevue, to a tight-knit neighborhood in the small, wealthy city of Franklin. 

Hughes said she felt car-dependent in her Nashville neighborhood, which didn’t have shared spaces or even sidewalks and wasn’t walkable to amenities like parks, restaurants, or grocery stores. And her kids had a hard time making friends in the neighborhood. 

“There was no kind of community gathering area, or like a pool or any place for people to get to know each other in the neighborhood,” Hughes said. “Without some kind of community-gathering place, we didn’t get to know our neighbors very well.” 

So they sold their house in Nashville last summer and bought a more expensive single-family house in Franklin, with a higher mortgage interest rate. 

Franklin’s high real-estate costs aren’t surprising. Walkable communities like it come at a premium. Homebuyers in the biggest cities in the US pay 35% more to live in a walkable neighborhood and renters pay 41% more, according to a report published earlier this year by Smart Growth America.

Hughes said the move was only possible because she and her husband were already homeowners. 

“I don’t see any way a first-time homebuyer is buying a home in Franklin right now,” she said. “The only way we could afford it is that we had a home to sell.” 

The move was also possible because Hughes’ husband works remotely and Hughes has a hybrid work setup where she commutes into Nashville — a 40- to 50-minute drive — just two or three days a week. 

The family’s new neighborhood in Franklin is much more walkable and was designed to promote community engagement. It has a park, pool, and soccer fields the family can walk to. The neighborhood’s homeowners association organizes all kinds of programming, including a Fourth of July bike parade, an Easter egg hunt, and a neighborhood campout.

“We have the green spaces in the neighborhood to do all that kind of stuff, which is something we just didn’t have in the old neighborhood,” Hughes said. 

Paying more and dealing with a longer commute in order to live in a place where she and her family feel more socially connected has ultimately been worth it, Hughes said. She’s already made friends with the parents of her kids’ new friends, who they run into in the neighborhood.

“This is why we moved — it wasn’t just a big waste of money,” she said with a laugh.

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