Nayomi Mbunga always wanted to live in a big city, so she was thrilled when she landed a tech job in Toronto. The 24-year-old grew up in Ireland, and was eager to “meet people of all walks of life”, she says. But that was a challenge when she started her job in January 2022, as she spent the first few months working remotely and isolating because of Covid-19 cases.
Mbunga liked her colleagues, but didn’t have much of a chance to get to know them without meeting in person, which they weren’t able to do for months into her starting the job. She got along well with her roommates, one of whom she knew from back home, but she wanted to expand her social circle.
How, she wondered, was she possibly going to make friends? Mbunga didn’t play sports, and she felt “creepy” reaching out to strangers who looked cool on Instagram. Her opportunities to meet potential friends was therefore limited to remote work and home.
She also felt out of practice at cultivating relationships, despite being very sociable. “During the pandemic, I was shocked with how anti-social I’d gotten, how nervous I was to talk to new people and put myself out there,” she says.
Making friends as an early career worker is critical, especially for people in a new city without existing ties. These friends nourish people through job crises and personal moments; in some cases, they end up being friends for life. But while making friends as an adult can be hard in and of itself, barriers have never been higher – especially for Gen Z. While work has traditionally been a place to make connections, many of these young people have lacked opportunities as firms shift to hybrid-, distributed- or remote-working models.
Experts say that, overall, social circles have shrunk after a lonely couple years during the pandemic – and in some cases, were never established at all. This means some young people are seeking new ways of making friends. Particularly, social-media reared Gen Z are now using new platforms to build sustainable close connections in a way that generations before them didn’t. Simply, young workers are getting more creative about the ways in which they meet people.
For Mbunga, in April 2022, she came across a TikTok video posted by Chloe Bow, a government-worker-turned-content-creator, who spoke candidly about friendships. Bow was planning events for a group she was starting called Toronto Girl Social; Mbunga followed her and signed up for an upcoming movie night, despite her nerves. “When I went to the event, it was so much fun, and everybody was in the exact same boat, everybody was nervous, everybody came on their own, and it kind of broke the ice in a way,” says Mbunga. “It was probably the best thing that I’ve done, because I’ve just met so many people now from it.”
Across Gen Z, Covid-19 created an unprecedented situation for forming friendships. For younger Gen Zers still in school, the pandemic lockdowns imposed a period of isolation and disruption. And older Gen Zers just entering the workforce also found themselves cut off from the new colleagues they would have met under normal circumstances.
During the pandemic, there was the lack of consistency,” says Joyce Chuinkam, senior research manager at Los Angeles-based market-research agency Talk Shoppe, which interviewed millennials and Gen Z about their friendships during the pandemic (proprietary data was discussed with BBC Worklife). School and work, which were traditionally a “consistent shared experiences” for young adults in past generations, adds Chuinkam, no longer served that purpose.
Many people, Gen Z specifically, who are entering the workforce, haven’t necessarily had the experience of being able to make friends in the typical way, and are starting a new job for the first time where they don’t know anyone,” explains Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert practicing in Montréal, Canada.
Research shows just how hard the pandemic has been on Gen Z’s sense of connection. Janice McCabe, an associate sociology professor at Dartmouth College, US, studies how friendship networks boost success. In 2016, she began conducting interviews with students at three universities in New Hampshire, US, to see how these early friendships played out through their lives. After completing her second wave of interviews in 2021, when her participants were entering the workforce, she saw how the pandemic had negatively affected both their abilities to sustain friendships and make new ones. “Making new friends was really tough [during the pandemic], so networks across the board were shrinking,” she says.
This dearth of relationships can hurt anyone’s wellbeing, but the timing for Gen Z couldn’t be worse. They are currently facing periods of overwhelming change in their lives: graduating from school, moving to new cities, starting new jobs, entering the workforce – in many cases, all of the above. “With all of that change, they need community in their new spaces,” says Chuinkam. And they need to be learning through new experiences, she adds: “Making new friends helps with that – to be exposed to something completely new and different.”
But now, that’s missing. And finding these meaningful friendships that challenge and expand a young adult’s horizons is a crucial experience that affects the rest of one’s life, according to McCabe. In young adulthood, people are seeking a sense of self, and friends can help someone become a better or different person, explains McCabe. “We see ourselves through our friends, so we see and figure out the ‘kind of person’ we are through thinking about and talking about our friends.”
Getting creative with friend-finding
This situation is certainly not lost on Gen Zers. For many, limited social networks have been top of mind, and they’re working on innovative ways to build the kinds of friendships older generations found more readily at places like offices.
From Talk Shoppe’s research, Chuinkam found that Gen Z was more open than millennials to making new friends online, through means such as friendship-app Bumble BFF and Facebook groups. But apps can be daunting, since they often facilitate one-on-one meetings, which puts pressure on a first meeting akin to that of a first date, study participants said. Gen Z felt like their friend-making “odds were higher” if they met through Facebook groups, says Chuinkam, which often tend to revolve around shared hobbies and also presenting a “more comfortable way to meet people” than the one-on-one experience of an app.
While many young people are open to these approaches, existing means of forging connection don’t do the trick for all Gen Zers. Some have come up with their own apps or online-based hubs to make new friends in a challenging social environment.
During the 2020 school year, for instance, Jamie Lee, then a student at Columbia University in New York City, who’d been studying remotely, was looking for ways to authentically connect with her peers online. That summer, she launched the beta version of what would become her app, Flox, where groups of friends could sign up together to meet other groups of friends. To Lee, this felt like a more authentic way for Gen Z to approach friend-making, as she told technology-news website TechCrunch, since people tend to be more authentic around the friends they already have. Meeting new people as a group would let them be themselves, and remove some of the nerves from the friend-making process.
A more unique scenario led to New York City-based Marissa Meizz creating her own online friend-finding hub. Called No More Lonely Friends, this now-national meetup group came about in summer 2021, when the then-23-year-old came across a TikTok video in which a stranger alerted her to the fact that her friends were planning to deliberately host a party without her behind her back. To find new – and better – friends as a member of Gen Z, Meizz turned right back to the internet to invite strangers to her meetups. She’s looking now to expand the service, an online form through which people can sign up to attend her meetup events, abroad.
As critical as the internet has been, the allure of meeting someone in person has not waned for all young people. After Pranav Iyer, 23, graduated from college in Philadelphia, US, in 2020, he moved to a city in Western Maryland to work in a lab, but the job was entirely remote. “I don’t think I felt really close with anyone … we would have maybe once a week, a meeting with myself and a couple other people from the lab, but that was about it,” he says. “So, most of the week, it was just me sitting at my computer.”
Instead of focusing on making all new friends where he lived, Iyer chose another approach – he made regular trips back to Philadelphia to reinforce the social circles he’d already established in college. Though remote work isolated him from making new friends in his lab, it allowed him to work wherever he pleased, so he could stay in Philadelphia for long stretches.
Ultimately, because Gen Z has not had the “experience of making new friends at work that they really can draw on and leverage to keep them feeling socially connected”, says Kirmayer, young people are fundamentally changing their approaches to how they connect, and what those connections look like. These shifts also have changed the entire traditional idea that work functions as a “hub of friendship and social connection”.
Gen Z, notes Chuinkam, is also uniquely poised to decentralize that “hub”, thanks to their comfort with online methods of meeting new people, and their ability to work remotely and move to their friends, instead of their friends having to come to them. Yes, they may be having a tough time in the wake of the pandemic – but if anyone is uniquely poised to cultivate them in a changed world, it is them.
As for Nayomi Mbunga, she’s thrilled about the different types of people she’s been able to meet through Toronto Girl Social, which expands her world well beyond her roommates and her work. “It’s very new to me to be around so many people from literally …all different backgrounds,” she says, describing the women she’s gotten to know through the group. One had just moved to Toronto from Ukraine, and another from India; some are in college, and others are married and have children. “I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve met so many different people all at one time … I’m loving that part.”
story by Jessica Klein and Casey Noenickx