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American millennials' loneliness sets the table for 'Friendsgiving'

Urbanites who skip going home for Thanksgiving are gathering their friends for a meal

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Friendsgiving has its roots in the reality TV show, The Real Housewives of New Jersey (the cast, above). This practice among unattached individuals or childless couples has since seeped into the cultural zeitgeist.

THEY say friends are the family we choose. And for growing numbers of young Americans, they are choosing Friendsgiving. This celebration barely existed a decade ago. With the rise of childless urban enclaves and the slowdown in household formation in the United States, the tradition of Thanksgiving at home with family is evolving into the more curated Friendsgiving, a table set with lonely millennials practising traditions of their choosing.

Like many cherished American traditions, Friendsgiving began as an ad campaign. The 2011 ad copy for Baileys Irish Cream went like this: "Whether you get together before Thanksgiving or after for leftovers, Friendsgiving is all about being with your 'other family'. "

From there, the holiday spread into our cultural zeitgeist by way of popular reality TV show The Real Housewives of New Jersey until by November 2013, it was registering as a substantive blip of Google searches for the first time. Every year since then, online interest in this most millennial of holidays has grown ever upward to today, when even Thanksgiving turkey peddlers are trademarking a "Butterball Friendsgiving". In Washington, where seemingly everyone is from somewhere else and a Capitol Hill salary barely affords a plane ticket, Friendsgiving feels at home.

Not only can 20-somethings trade conversation with their great-uncle for roommates familiar with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's black bean soup, they also have more of their peers to seat at a table than ever before. The nation's capital saw its share of young people ages 18 to 34 shoot up in the first decade of this century, a trend that has continued to this day. The District of Columbia's newest denizens are, for the most part, highly educated, white and unattached.

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Large swathes of the top US cities are becoming playgrounds for the white childless elite. Nowhere is this truer than in the places most interested in Friendsgiving, according to Google Trends; the cities are, for example, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, New York and Austin.

Six decades ago, a quarter of San Francisco's residents were younger than 18; today, that share has fallen to about 13 per cent. San Francisco now has more dogs (120,000 to 150,000) than children (115,000). Superstar cities are attracting superstar employees with the disposable income and disposition to be mobile. There, walled in by strict zoning laws and insulated from suffering schools, educated millennials can rev up the city's "entertainment machine" with their newfound affluence.

But young people are still lonely. In a recent survey by Cigna, Gen Z (whom the health insurer defines as those aged 18 to 22) and millennials (ages 23 to 37) reported higher rates of loneliness than older Americans. More than half of members of Gen Z identified with the feelings associated with loneliness. This is true even as nearly 40 per cent of young Americans are reportedly online every waking minute with growing options to connect and express themselves. They walk sidewalks flush with passersby, necks hunched and eyes fixed on their screens.

Isolation is a modern communal state for urban millennials. Delays in marriage and parenthood are pushing family formation into later stages of life, leaving behind smaller households less likely to be attached to any one person or place. More Americans are single than at any time in the past 140 years, while the median age of "I do" in the big city is more than half a generation older than in mid-century America.

For Americans today ages 18 to 24, cohabitation with a partner is more common than living with a spouse. Childbearing is also being delayed, to an average of 31 years old in New York and 32 in San Francisco. Friends and community might be more necessary to fill the young lives once constituted by a growing family.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the indefatigable writer who convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, called turkey day the "best exponent . . . of the prosperity and happiness of the American people".

Friendsgiving, by contrast, though praised by successful brands as varied as Absolut and Taco Bell, feels more like a longing for togetherness. If loneliness is like being hungry when everyone is preparing to feast, as Olivia Laing put it, perhaps it is fitting then for a Friendsgiving table to be set with food and friends. So we queue up a potluck with our closest companions as though we're Netflixing a holiday. And there, surrounded by friendly faces, we feel at home. WP

  • The writer is director for state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.