Emmelie Althaus
Research & Strategie
05.04.2022 | reading time: 5 minutes

CHANGING CULTURES MAGAZINE > TRENDS > Loneliness and Acceptance of Failure

On Loneliness and the Acceptance of Failure

Millennial loneliness is a phenomenon bound up with ideals of self-realization and competitiveness. Thus to address issues of loneliness, the usually taboo topic of failure must be put on the table for discussion as well.



We hear and read about loneliness all the time in newspapers, podcasts, music and social media— see for example the novel titles Alone by Daniel Schreiber and The New Loneliness by Diana Kinnert on the German bestseller list. Why is everybody talking about it? Are more and more people experiencing loneliness? Or does the current popularity of the topic merely reflect today’s pandemic reality of restricted interpersonal contact?

Hard to say, but loneliness can have many different causes, and affect people from all walks of life. It sets in when social contact is lacking in terms of either quantity or quality, i.e. frequency of contact with friends and family or the degree of intimacy and closeness felt. As something inherently negative, loneliness is never voluntary. Like feeling hunger, it signals a human deficiency, and thus is distinct from merely being alone, which can be enjoyable as a voluntary state, or being socially isolated in the sense of having few social contacts.

Werbung von Fairphone, wie ein Mann über das Handy springt


While loneliness is increasingly being reported on as a problem, there is scarce data-in the pre-pandemic era at any rate-indicating that loneliness was in fact on the rise broadly within the population. So while there may not be a loneliness trend or epidemic, it is becoming increasingly apparent that loneliness is an issue affecting younger adults age 18 to 39, in addition to the elderly. The suffering among young adults is garnering attention, with a feature titled “The Lonely Generation” running for example in NDR Kulturjournal, and another on Deutsch-landfunk Nova: “Twentysomethings: Lonely Together”. Thus millennial lone-liness is now known as ‘a thing’, i.e. a recognized phenomenon.


Feelings of loneliness have many causes, and some are of an individual nature, such as illness, moving to a different place or the experiencing the loss of a loved one. It can be due to living in isolation in the country, or living in anonymity in the big city. And of course elderly sufferers of immobility and isolation are particularly at risk. Other causes lie in comparing one’s own life to others’, feeling unable to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, and feeling unseen, with everyone mostly focused on their own affairs. The latter is of particularly relevance among younger generations ─ thus the question arises of what is behind such feelings.

In a sociological study, Hartmut Rosa and Andreas Reckwitz offer an explanation based on the theory that in the West we are in a time characterized as the “late modern” period. Globalization, digitalization and unrestrained liberalization characterize this period on the one hand, and these have given rise to great freedom and tremendous civilizational progress. But these are predicated upon economic deregulation which has impacted the environment, placing the burden of responsibility too much on the individual. In the late modern period, now, the determinant factor in how an individual can lead his or her life is one’s individual achievement. One’s job, social relationships and free-time activities are all in the service of self-realization. Structuring one’s everyday life and greater life plans thus become an ambitious and challenging undertaking—one which not everyone is equally up to. At the same time, competition and rivalry are structural features in the ‘more is more’ logic of late modernity, creating pressure on people to deliver and perform ever more to keep from falling behind their contemporaries. Many respond to this fear of falling behind by developing a certain flexibility.

If millennial loneliness is in fact ‘a thing’, these considerations have weight. The imperative of keeping up with the latest developments appears to demand a focus on oneself. But focusing increasingly on oneself runs counter somewhat to the goal of increased social interaction. And the type of flexibility required to keep changing jobs and frequently moving makes it hard to maintain stable social relationships—the price paid for self-realization and competitiveness.


“Extreme personal ambition is a defining characteristic of our
late-modern culture of successful, performative self-realization.
The individual is subject to the most elevated expectations,
and the individual wants to meet such expectations,
out of both desire and necessity.”

–– Andreas Reckwitz ––



Reckwitz and Rosa point out that in our ambitious late-modern world of competition and growth, the individual is likely to experiencing failure. Having high expectations for one’s life can easily lead to disappointment, as it turns out in time we are often unable to convert our ideals into reality. What’s more, our culture lacks positive examples and narratives that offer suitable comfort in the face of such failure. An attitude is missing that would enable us to recognize when something is “good enough”, along with corresponding practices and instances formalizing the forgiveness of failure. People will continue to fear failure as long as it remains taboo, and there is much progress to be made. For we find it difficult to even admit having had times in our lives that are less compelling from a marketing standpoint. Fear keeps us focused on ourselves, limiting our ability to approach others.


“We do in fact upon taking a closer look see the subject in late modernity […] assuming responsibility, as people blame themselves for their own failures, defeats, inadequacies and deficits. For burnout, obesity, aging  ... for feeling lonely or unattractive.”

–– Hartmut Rosa ––


If millennial loneliness has its origins in this attitude, surely we need to talk more openly and often about failure, in addition to making it OK to talk about loneliness. We need, perhaps, the courage to allow ourselves to be inefficient creatures, to let go of our expectations to find fulfillment in every area and to accept that both we and others make mistakes in life. The experiencing of failure and the unattainability of desired goals are after all fundamental to our shared human experience, as something which sooner or later will manifest in everyone’s lives. This realization can unlock significant empathy, understanding and solidarity, which are needed, among other things, to heal the problem of loneliness.



Author: Emmelie Althaus

Emmelie studied Empirical Cultural Studies, Art History and Transformation Design in Tübingen and Braunschweig. She focuses on not taking anything for granted in everyday life and on questioning seemingly given objects or human behaviors as to where they come from, what they might lead to in the future, and which alternatives might be conceivable.

Bildreferenzen "Header" // "Street" // "Fridge" // "Boy" // "Light" // "Chair"


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