Why millennials never want to leave their apartment anymore

Couch life.
Couch life.
Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Public Domain
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Nobody wants to leave their apartment anymore. That’s the prevailing sentiment on the internet, anyway. Mean Girls memes and Viola Davis gifs celebrate the joy of canceling plans. Essays offer neuroscience-backed explanations of the relief that comes with bailing on drinks, while listicles and trend pieces promote the homebody lifestyle. Advice columns enumerate tips for backing out of social plans without losing your friends. The weekly newsletter Girls Night In features “recommendations for a cozy night in” alone or with girlfriends, including books, recipes, gratitude exercises, and candles. And at last count, Etsy offered 11,490 introvert-branded items celebrating a life of blissful solitude, from enamel pins emblazoned with the motto “Anti-Social Butterfly” to t-shirts declaring, “It’s way too people-y outside.”

The rise of millennial hermits is a bit puzzling at first blush. Sure, staying inside has its advantages. You’re sheltered from the elements. You can watch TV, which has gotten really good. Your pet is there, if you have a pet. And everyone needs downtime, some of us more than others.

But where are those others, exactly—the people who actually look forward to socializing, at least some of the time? (A search for Etsy products tagged “extrovert” yields a mere 443 results, many of which are actually about introverts.) And if countries around the world, from the US and the UK to Japan and Denmark, are supposedly in the grips of a massive loneliness crisis, why are so many people declaring that their greatest desire in life is to take off their pants and nestle ever-deeper into the couch?

Research suggests that all this homebody chatter is not just for show: Young people really are more prone to staying in these days. One 2018 paper, published in the journal Joule, found that Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 spend a whopping 70% more time at home than the general US population. In another 2018 survey, conducted by the marketing research firm Mintel, 28% of millennials between 24 and 31 said that they preferred to drink at home because going out was too much effort, compared to just 15% of baby boomers who agreed with that statement.

But it’s also true that all those Etsy t-shirts and introvert comics are part of a somewhat paradoxical phenomenon: The internet has given rise to a collective, public performance of solitude.

Of Seamless and self-care

Technology has certainly played a role in popularizing the hermit trend. Writing for the New York Times in 2016, Molly Young suggests that services like Tinder, Netflix, Seamless, and Postmates have enabled today’s young people to abandon themselves to the comforts of convenience. “It’s like pouring your money into a savings account,” she writes of the choice to stay in over going out. “You’ll grow marginally; you’ll stay safe; your expectations will be met and never exceeded.” Heading out to a party or an art opening, Young writes, is more of a gamble. Maybe you’ll have an amazing night you’ll always remember, but more likely you’ll just stand around awkwardly and blow $60 on cocktails.

Young’s theory suggests that Netflix and its ilk are facilitating our desire to stay in, rather than compelling us to do so. They’ve thrived because they tap into the comfort-craving, risk-averse portions of our psyches. In the Times article “Am I Introverted, or Just Rude?,” the writer KJ Dell’Antonia also posits that the homebody renaissance may be linked to the popularity of Susan Cain’s 2012 book on introverts, Quiet, which helped spread the (quite valid!) idea that staying in can be a form of necessary self-care. “I wasn’t neglecting my friends, avoiding my fellow parents or letting my community engagements suffer,” Dell’Antonia says of giving herself permission to decline invitations. “I was preserving my energy, engaging in self-care, allowing my ‘tortoise shell’ to protect my vulnerable, precious self.”

Dell’Antonia ultimately concludes that she’s been erring too far on the side of downtime, and that she needs to carve out more space in her life to engage with friends, family, and the public sphere. But it makes sense that—particularly in an age where awareness of the dangers of burnout is at an all-time high—people have been increasingly drawn to conversations about why it’s just fine to resist the tug of social obligations and simply rest and recharge.

There’s a gendered component to the appeal of staying in as a form of self-care, too. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner observes in her 2018 article on Gwyneth Paltrow’s wildly successful lifestyle company Goop, wellness became popular among women as “a way to reorient ourselves — we were not in service to anyone else, and we were worthy subjects of our own care.” If carving out space in a busy week for reiki and life coaches is one way for women to prioritize the well-being of their own bodies and minds, so too is opting into the more affordable rituals of wellness that can be done on your own, at home—a night of face masks and journaling and yoga in the living room.

But even before the dawn of the self-care era, factors ranging from suburban sprawl to dual-income households contributed to a steep decline of community-minded activities in the US. As Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam explains in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by 2000, Americans were already throwing fewer dinner parties and joining fewer bowling leagues and bands and church groups. Life has been getting more insular for a good while.

The homebody filter bubble

There’s an obvious reason for millennials to take pleasure in being at home: They’re exhausted, and they need a break. In that sense, the trend is in keeping with a value that Danish philosopher Svend Brinkmann calls the joy of missing out. In a culture where, “if we miss out on anything in this life, it’s seen as a kind of existential failure,” Brinkmann said in a Vox interview, we can wind up too overstretched and overwhelmed to enjoy our lives at all.  He recommends opting out of the impulse to constantly seek out new experiences, and learning to find meaning in the mundane and routine.

Yet there may also be a dark side to all this cheerful indoorsiness. “Implicit in the introvert, stay-at-home discourse is the idea that life is increasingly bad,” Malcolm Harris, the author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, told Vox’s Kaityln Tiffany. Harris argues that millennials are staying in more often not out of some pure love for hygge, but because they’re overworked, tired, stressed about the state of the world, and too broke to afford a big night out, anyway. All those memes about snuggling cats in bed could just be an attempt to put a positive spin on the grim circumstances that have pushed this generation into retreat.

Late-capitalist factors aside, there’s no doubt that some people simply prefer to stay home with a murder mystery and a nice big pizza while their friends are out hitting the dance floor. What’s remarkable is not that such preferences exist, but the glee people online seem to take in shouting about a night in from their digital rooftops. And this has to do with how the mediums we use to express ourselves work to shape the self-images we create.

Consider Instagram, a photographic medium, where all the evidence suggests that people are in fact happily leaving their apartments all the time! Someone is jogging across a Lisbon plaza. Another person is at a brewery; someone else is showing his sister around New York. Since Instagram is most commonly used as a place to showcase experiences, people are motivated to share images of themselves and what they see when they’re out and about.

But elsewhere on the internet, what matters is not what you’re doing when you’re offline, but what you’re thinking about while you’re on. And when you’re fooling around on your laptop or lying on bed scrolling through your phone, one thing you’re likely to be thinking about is how nice home is. So you go ahead and share a comic about the joys of bubble baths and stocked refrigerators. You post a clip of comedian John Mulaney declaring, “It is so much easier not to do things than to do them, that you would do anything is totally remarkable.” And since online culture rewards both self-deprecating humor and the appearance of authenticity, that post has a multiplying effect, inspiring even more people to share their huge Saturday night plans of lounging around the house in sweatpants. Online, it’s cool to stay in—not least because the people most likely to see and engage with your post are staying in themselves, too.

An added benefit of posting about staying in is that it can double as a form of personal branding: A way to assert control over your social anxiety, or a rebuff to the cultural pressures that can make young people feel like duds if their personal lives aren’t full of constant glitz and adventure. It’s also a subtle power move. Cracking a joke on Twitter about waiting for love to come find you in your apartment is a way of letting the world know that you’re self-sufficient and happy with or without social plans, free from pangs of loneliness or rejection.

Of course, if you’re also talking to other people online, you’re not entirely solitary. And so the internet has given rise to a new kind of night in. We may indeed feel relaxed and cozy beneath our weighted anti-anxiety blankets, relieved to be spared the rituals of shots and small talk and shouting over music. Still, there’s a part of us that wants to connect. So we reach for our phones, wanting to share the pleasure we take in being alone.