Taking Stock Let’s Stop Pretending It's Easy to Make Friends in Your 20s The Balance Issue
Lets Stop Pretending It's Easy to Make Friends in Your 20s
the digital issue

Let’s Stop Pretending It's Easy to Make Friends in Your 20s

A tale of connection and complexities.

May 2019 wasn't an ideal time to move cities—let alone countries—after graduating from college. But I'd met a boy the year before while I was studying abroad in England, and in my mind, I crafted a romantic, cultured, and glamorous city life I was desperate to make a reality. I got busy applying for jobs and secured a visa once I landed one. Yes, it was risky, and I was leaving behind a slew of close friends. Still, your 20s are reserved for taking chances and being daring, right? We planned to keep in touch over text and Skype (this was pre-pandemic), and I was sure I'd meet new people once I got settled.

I'm not sure what I imagined "settled" looking or feeling like, but it didn't come quickly. After a couple of months in my new apartment and at my new job, I realized that making adult friends is weird and no—it's not that easy to meet new people outside of work.

I blamed the pandemic for my difficulty making new friends in London. As my coworkers became my go-to friends of convenience, I wondered: Where on earth are you supposed to meet friends? Thousands of bodies swarmed past me every day as I walked to and from Oxford Circus station. Could I have anything in common with her? Or maybe her? Still, as I imagined friendship possibilities, bodies always kept moving. Everyone remained in their little worlds with earbuds in, phones to ears, and hands in pockets, marching toward their commitments.

It was exhausting.

two friends sitting and talking

Stocksy/Designed by Tiana Crispino

Nine months after my journey in London started, it all stopped. The prime minister issued a stay-at-home order, and less than a year after moving my two suitcases into a shoebox apartment with my partner, I was locked inside. I had a few fledgling friends from work, a handful of my partner's friends who'd lovingly adopted me as their own, and a couple of study-abroad pals who lived hours from London. Yes, they were great, but they didn't really know me, and I didn't really know them. The only people I desired to talk to were back home in Minnesota, six hours behind me and thousands of miles away.

As the pandemic has slowly become something we've learned to manage, I decided to become more intentional about making friends. I wasn't exactly sure what it looked like. Still, I knew my current circumstances—working from home, spending every evening with my partner, and befriending the grocery store security guard—were not it.

Yes, they were great, but they didn't really know me, and I didn't really know them.

When my mom would ask if I had made new friends in London, I'd immediately resort to blaming the circumstances. Everyone's working from home, and they've even closed the climbing gym, I'd say. How am I supposed to meet new people?

It was unlucky timing and a uniquely tricky situation that I was sure wasn't as bad for everyone else. At least, that's what I thought.

Truth: Almost Everyone Feels This Way

When I started talking to people about my predicament, I realized it wasn't as unique as I'd imagined. Nearly everyone I'd spoken to immediately agreed that forming friendships didn’t come easily. Many of them only ever spent time with the few people they lived with (whether they liked them or not). Their coworkers were all in different life stages, and they couldn't relate to their tales of mortgages and parental leave. Or they weren't very athletic, but joining a gym or sports team seemed like the only way to meet people outside of a bar.

"I live pretty far away from my high school and college friends," says Isabel Ludick, a 24-year-old brand director based in Cape Town, South Africa. "My only options are the friendly, drunk girls in club bathrooms or my boyfriend's friends." She concedes that, while she appreciates both, neither prospect tends to go past the shallow acquaintance stage. Although she's hoping to stumble across a new best friend, she realizes it may be more challenging than expected. "I think people grow wearier to meaningful connections as they mature," she says. "It acts as a defense mechanism, but socializing is also exhausting."

man smiling with shoulder around a woman

Stocksy/Designed by Tiana Crispino

In today's hustle-culture era—between trying to score a promotion at work, keep a side-gig afloat, and maintain a decent social media presence—are we all just too tired to make friends?

"Once we leave high school or college, we take on more responsibility and frequently deal with more stress," says relationship expert Kevin Darné. "As adults working demanding jobs, living on our own, paying rent, and other responsibilities, we don't have as much time for socializing or downtime."

But Why?

As we get older, we have more tasks consuming our days and much more responsibility. When that responsibility is brand-new, it can be terrifying for some people. The mental exhaustion that comes with being afraid you've missed something or worried you've done something wrong also takes a toll. At the end of each eight- to 10-hour workday is life administrative tasks (read: adulting) like feeding yourself and taking care of your body and space. If you have any energy left, you need to think up something fun to do, organize plans, and try to enjoy yourself.

In today's hustle-culture era—between trying to score a promotion at work, keep a side-gig afloat, and maintain a decent social media presence—are we all just too tired to make friends?

"Once you get away from school campuses, there are fewer social activities created specifically for your age group," says Darné. "In the outside world, you have to be far more proactive in seeking opportunities to meet potential new friends." But being proactive isn't just draining—it's also scary. And, for some reason, a lot of us are afraid to admit it.

"I've lived in London for over a year, and it's genuinely been so hard to make friends, partially due to COVID, but also because it's difficult," says 27-year-old graphic designer Hannah. "I feel like many people think that, but we're all afraid to talk about it."

She's not wrong—this sentiment is one nearly every person I've spoken to about this subject has echoed. It's worth considering: If we're all terrified to admit it's hard to make friends, aren't we just making things more difficult for ourselves?

"Making friends in your 20s can be challenging," says licensed marriage and family therapist Laurel Roberts-Meese. "The structures and systems we made friends through before don't exist anymore. Sure, we have the workplace, but workplaces aren't structured to assist your psychosocial development."

The very nature of our 20s makes solidifying a genuine connection even more complicated. "The 20s are a transient decade. People are moving all over the country and world, changing jobs, forming more serious romantic relationships, and making major life changes far more often than they did in school and college," says Roberts-Meese. "That transience means people fall out of touch more often."

two people outside sitting on grass and laughing

Stocksy/Designed by Tiana Crispino

What We Can Do

What can 20-somethings do to form meaningful friendships in the face of all this? "Try to structure your social life so that people don't fall through the cracks," says Roberts-Meese. "I put my most important people's names on my recurring to-do list and make sure I regularly reach out and schedule things. If I meet someone cool at a conference or work event, I make a point to put their name on my list to reach out at a later point so I don't forget."

Finding a hobby or honing in on a passion might also spark connections with a new BFF. "Find a hobby that encourages you to be social with others," says licensed clinical social worker Lena Suarez-Angelino. "This can be a physical or creative activity. If you are part of local online communities, don't be afraid to be the one who posts asking to meet up IRL." However, Suarez-Angelino encourages doing this as a group in public to keep things as safe as possible.

Darné agrees and says to find people you want to meet; you should try to run in the same circles. "Your local Meetup.com site can be a good place to start. Try book clubs, photography, writing, yoga, meditation, or any other activity," he recommends.

You don't have to have a preexisting hobby or physical pursuit. Instead, trying to find new friends can be an excellent opportunity to try something new too. "Be willing to say yes to more invitations to social activities and gatherings," says Darné. He also recommends trying new activities or finding a local charity to volunteer with. "Any activity that puts you in place to see the same people frequently is good."

While the reality is that finding, nurturing, and keeping friendships—new and old—can be difficult, it's something that takes work, time, patience, and a hint of manufactured energy. Still, being honest about the complexities of establishing real connections makes it easier to navigate.

If you're in your 20s and finding it hard, you're not the only one. "People are starving for connection," says Roberts-Meese. "We just have to be intentional and use the systems and resources available to maintain and build them." Like with all things—especially relationships—trial and error are inevitable, but if you give yourself grace, you'll find your tribe in due time.

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