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caption: Natalie Newcomb, KUOW's weekend announcer/reporter, stands with her roommate Annaka in front of their new home.
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Natalie Newcomb, KUOW's weekend announcer/reporter, stands with her roommate Annaka in front of their new home.
Credit: Natalie Newcomb

WFH is lonely for Gen Zers — so I moved back in with my college roommate

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nnaka and I were roommates our freshman year at Washington State University. About a month ago, we decided to move in together again.

We often work from home. We’re still figuring out how to make our home a functional co-working space.

Annaka wants a treadmill desk near a window. I want a space for my desktop computer and a quiet space to do interviews.

Annaka graduated from “Zoom university,” as we call it, in May of 2021. She wore her graduation robe and stole, along with her pajamas and fuzzy socks. It was a small celebration. Annaka, her roommates, and family members watched the virtual ceremony. When Annaka and her roommate’s names were announced, they waved at the audience and walked across the living room instead of a stage.

caption: [Left] Annaka celebrated her virtual graduation with her college roommates, [middle] Mackenzie Nation, and [right] Anna Kleinbach. Annaka wore her strawberry fuzzy socks, and Kleinbach wore her pink fluffy slippers.
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[Left] Annaka celebrated her virtual graduation with her college roommates, [middle] Mackenzie Nation, and [right] Anna Kleinbach. Annaka wore her strawberry fuzzy socks, and Kleinbach wore her pink fluffy slippers.
Credit: COURTESY OF Annaka

On that same day, I went to the “cliffs” along the Snake River, and camped with a handful of friends. Many of them were graduating too. I didn’t want to look at the graduation stream. It was a harsh reminder that our four years of hard work was not going to be celebrated on a stage under the bright lights.

caption: {From bottom left] Natalie Newcomb celebrates graduating with her dog, Pulitzer, and friends Katie Collins, Taner Schiller, [from top left] Tessa Czech, Ruby the dog, Lucas Mason, Colby Enebrad, Katie Arrasmith, and Paige Campbell.
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{From bottom left] Natalie Newcomb celebrates graduating with her dog, Pulitzer, and friends Katie Collins, Taner Schiller, [from top left] Tessa Czech, Ruby the dog, Lucas Mason, Colby Enebrad, Katie Arrasmith, and Paige Campbell.
Credit: COURTESY OF Katie Collins

Last September, Annaka moved to Seattle for her first corporate job. Around the same time, I started working at KUOW as the weekend morning announcer. Neither Annaka nor I have ever worked full-time in an office — social distancing rules were in full effect when we began our careers.

Like many born in Generation Z, broadly defined as people under the age of 25, Annaka and I have struggled with launching our careers in a remote work environment.

A study published by Washington State University in April found that while many Gen-Zers don’t feel ready to return to work fully in-person, many feel that they are missing out on professional development and networking opportunities. The study found 60% of Gen Zers are worried that starting their careers remotely hindered their growth. Annaka and I fear having a false start could impact our careers, even after the pandemic.

Chip Hunter, the Dean of WSU’s School of Business, said Gen Z is unique in feeling anxiety about the unknown consequences of remote work.

“They are concerned about access to training, developing the necessary skills, especially because these are folks really early in their career — it's often their first job,” Hunter explained. “I think there's also a more general sense of anxiety about not knowing. [Gen Z professionals] don't know how the workplace really works," he added, stating that many feel they don't know what they may be missing out on.

Annaka and I are among the many Gen Zers who have had this experience.

Annaka wanted to connect with people at her new job but working remotely made that difficult. She found remote work really lonely.

“I was thinking I was going to be able to make friends at work,” Annaka said. “I didn’t really know anyone peer-level at work. I didn’t know how to make friends in general because everything was online. If I were to reach out and message someone on [Microsoft] Teams, I wouldn’t even know who to message.”

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, having a “work best friend” at your job leads to increased productivity and more engagement at work. Annaka now has a best friend at work, who she connected with after moving to a team that worked partially in-person. But before that, Annaka said she felt lost in the company culture, and it was difficult to network and work on the projects she was most interested in.

Personally, I felt like I was losing out on mentorship opportunities by not being around colleagues often. I was also missing out on the ability to quickly consult coworkers and talk through problems, without setting up a Zoom meeting. Instead, when I needed help, I paced around my apartment and let the anxiety eat me. These moments made me feel lonely and helpless.

Loneliness is a state of mind in which there’s a disconnect between what somebody wants or expects from a relationship, and what they actually experience in that relationship, according to the University of Chicago's School of Medicine.

According to the U.S. Department of Health, experiencing loneliness can have palpable consequences for a person’s well-being, and is connected to a number of physical and mental health conditions.

In 2017, the U.S. Surgeon General declared that loneliness was at epidemic levels. One study published by the insurance company Cigna found that loneliness in Americans increased during the pandemic. According to that study, 7% more Americans felt lonely in just two years.

Gen Z has the highest rate of loneliness, according to a growing body of research. A study published by Cigna found that 79% of Gen Zers felt lonely. The study referred to us as the “Loneliest Generation.”

This label made my stomach sink. It felt too accurate. My heart throbs when I think about younger Gen Zers who missed many of life’s experiences and milestones, like going to Friday night football games and prom.

For my part, I missed out on late-night study sessions with college friends. I also missed out on throwing my college grad cap in the air, then searching for it among the sea of graduates.

caption: Natalie Newcomb's graduation cap says "nevertheless, she persisted."
Its still in perfect condition because it was only used as a prop for photos. She never had the chance to throw her cap along with other graduating peers.
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Natalie Newcomb's graduation cap says "nevertheless, she persisted." Its still in perfect condition because it was only used as a prop for photos. She never had the chance to throw her cap along with other graduating peers.
Credit: Natalie Newcomb

I was really excited to join the workforce, especially at the station I listened to as a backseat NPR baby. I visited KUOW often when I participated in the station's youth journalism program, RadioActive. The station looks, feels, and sounds very different now. I remember the newsroom used to be full of people and felt lively. Now, only a handful of my colleagues frequent the quiet office.

Although it took a long time, I have a few work best friends and met some fantastic mentors. Things are getting better, but lots of casual social interactions are still missing.

For both Annaka and I, feelings of loneliness and isolation are two of the main reasons why we moved in together again. I never thought I would willingly and happily give up living alone. I'm happier now and glad Annaka is my roommate.

As the pandemic tails off, work norms continue to shift. It's unclear what those norms may be by 2024, the year scientists project the disease will become endemic; I hope we choose a path that is still flexible but less lonely.

For right now though, Annaka and I will be a little less lonely, together.