The pandemic has changed how many people think about socializing – in-person social distancing, sticking to phone calls rather than meetups, or telepartying for a movie night. While digital communication was already the standard practice for most Americans before the pandemic, the push to socialize through technological means has quickly normalized digital interactions. But not for everyone.

As evidenced in a previous CivicScience survey, almost half of U.S. adults have not felt a sense of belonging to a group of people over the last year. This experience intensifies for those who are 55 or older, more than half of whom have not felt a sense of belonging to a group of people in the past year.

Part of this can be explained by how people view their friendships with others. The majority of U.S. adults report having more than one “close friend.” While the definition of “close friend” may differ between individuals, those who are 35 or older are more likely to say they keep fewer close friends. Survey respondents under 35 reported they had five or more close friends at a 25% higher rate than people over 35. The 55 and older age group has the greatest percentage of people with zero close friends.

For the average person, more close friends correlates with stronger feelings of overall happiness. Comparatively, those 55 and older who say they have no close friends are significantly unhappier than the Gen Pop who have no close friends. 

The underlying social dynamics within older cohorts help to explain this trend. As people age they generally become less busy whether because of retirement, kids going off to college, or simply having less energy than they did in their youth. But just because they might have a more toned-down social life doesn’t mean they don’t need as much quality connection with others.

The social obstacles of the pandemic are difficult for most people on some level, but technology and social media have certainly made a difference. Younger people are more used to relying on technology and social media to connect with other people, but older generations don’t share the same level of comfort.

Between the start of the pandemic and September 2021, social media usage among Americans 55 and older saw little to no change. It appears older generations didn’t scale up their time on social media to compensate for lack of social interactions. Either the 55 and older crowd isn’t as able as younger age groups to easily pivot their methods of socializing to stay connected to friends and family, or they simply don’t find it satisfying enough.

With much of socialization shifting to technological means, the generations who are less familiar with communicating through phones, computers, and social media are arguably at a disadvantage.