Why Millennials Need to Learn to Prioritize Relationships
Updated: May 29
You know that pop-culture trope that you’re the composite of the 5 people you spend the most time around? If that’s true, I’m a collection of: my partner, my co-founder, and…oh boy. My partner’s college buddy, who we see maybe once a month? Nowhere on this list are the people I’d call my best friends. I almost never see them.
I don’t think I’m really that unusual. I’m in my thirties, and my life has been marked by a lot of movement. I’ve bounced from LA to Boston to New York, for law school and the different jobs that came after. Everyone else was doing it, too. I can tell you the number of friends’ addresses I know by heart, because it’s: zero. We’re a mobile generation.
You know what else we are? Busy. And not in a cute, slightly harried romantic comedy way, where tendrils of hair escape our barrettes as we hail a cab. We’re busy in a darker way. Ever wonder why every third person you meet has a “side hustle?”
It isn’t because everyone started reading Brené Brown and discovered a deep wellspring of creativity. (Although some did! Right on.) It’s because we’re facing chaotic levels of debt (oh hey, student loans) and an unprecedented inability to take hold of the basic trappings of the American Dream.
But we’re resilient, we Millennials, no matter how much they make fun of our avocado toast.
The real problem isn’t that we’re moving too much, or that we’re broke. It’s that our collective overwhelm has disconnected us. We have to schedule catch-up calls weeks ahead of time, and lean on Instagram comments like they’re a real conversation. But that isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
Remember Abraham Maslow, from that college Intro to Psych course? He’s the creator of Maslow’s Hierarchy, a pyramid of human requirements. It’s fairly self-explanatory: before anything else come your basic physical needs, like safety, shelter, and food. At the top of the pyramid, for humans who’ve conquered everything else, come needs like self-knowledge and self-actualization. But in the critical, load-bearing middle?
Social needs. The need to belong to a group. To have shared experiences. To feel like we have someone to call in the middle of the night, when the wolves are at the door. They aren’t literal wolves anymore, of course. They come in different forms — pandemics and family separations and terrible hairpieces on angry, unstable Tweet-monsters — but they’re there all the same. And like we always have, we all need each other desperately.
But there’s a particular kind of community that we are losing with real velocity as we try to measure up in all the other areas of our lives. We’re losing our friends.
It happens so gradually that we barely register it at first. Think about it: in college, you spent hours laying on their dorm room carpets, talking about dating and our careers.
In the years right after graduation, you shared closets with your roommates and danced on tables . You spent your nights shouting “I LOVE YOU” above the throbbing blast of concerts, and your days working shoulder-to-shoulder in coffee shops. And then momentum shifts. You move. They get married. Someone has a baby.
All of these life changes trickle in and then become a deluge, turning the tide of your day-to-day life. Most of the changes are positive and thrilling. They’re also not geared toward the preservation of what you had. You look up one day, and you haven’t seen your best friend in a year.
Here’s the line we’re fed by society: that we don’t need our friends past a certain point, that “having it all” means a partner and babies and a career where we’re splintering the glass ceiling. Nowhere in that image of the modern Success Story are they waking up on a Saturday morning and meeting a buddy to go rock-climbing.
We’re told that these relationships are a luxury, one we have to increasingly give up as we age. It was all well and good to spend hours on the phone with your best friend when you were in college. But now you have a Real Life, which has somehow come to be defined by the strength of its vertical connections rather than its lateral ones. Having strong friendships, investing in them with time and money, is wasteful. Those resources should be used on getting ahead, rather than strengthening the connections to your friends.
But it’s a lie. In fact, we’re doing ourselves an enormous disservice if we go gentle into that good night and let our friendships slowly fade.
We’re not intended to do it alone.
Being a human is magic. It’s also truly, honestly tough. The emotional and organizational labor of family units, whether it’s care for children or older parents, or the everyday management of getting laundry out of the dryer and back in the drawers, is exhausting.
Many of us do it while also carrying full-time careers (most of us, actually. See the above issue with the economic instability of our generation). We can do all of this, and we do, with grace and strength. But we need each other. We need the validation of another person who is having the same experience, who can say with the gravitas of someone who knows: “Yeah, dude. This is a lot.”
People who have known us the longest remind us of who we truly are.
Life changes us. As we become homeowners and parents and holders of retirement accounts, we need to remember the kids we were. They were pretty fun: kind of loud, really interested in electricity and horses and detective novels.
And then, a little later, really brave: ready to throw punches, crusaders for the environment and immigrant rights. Life adds responsibilities to our plates, but we cannot let it crowd out our identities. That’s why friends are so crucial. We relate to them as only ourselves: we do not need to seduce them, as we do a partner, or be brave for them, as we do a child.
The people who have seen you build yourself don’t need anything from you, other than the maintenance of the person within. It’s you — the witty, sarcastic human being who craves adventure and loves soup dumplings — who helps them solve their problems and brings them joy, not you as “Mrs. X” or “Dr. Y.”
We need them so deeply, our friends. But living far apart, or buried in obligations, we might only show up for the big things — weddings, usually — because we don’t have enough vacation days or funds for the small ones: the Thursday nights where you just need your friend to bring over a bottle of wine and listen.
So, what do we do? First, we admit there’s a problem. The sooner we view investment in our friendships as crucial to our mental and emotional health, the sooner we begin to act.
Then — like always — we have to get creative. Can we do an annual friends trip, even if we have to plan it a year in advance? Can we block off an evening a month for dinner at that Mexican place with the jalapeno margaritas? Can we start a tradition of sending cards and presents on birthdays again? It’s an honest conversation with ourselves about priorities: time and money are finite, and our world tends toward entropy. Connections get lost.
But we’re heroes: we wake up in the cold early morning to do deadlifts. We fly over the country to win death penalty cases. We can create life. Let’s decide to make life work for us.
Let’s just decide not to let go of each other.