Did Millennials Accidentally Kill Our Friendships When We Killed Phone Calls?

Making and getting lots of phone calls was a raison d’etre for millions of Millennial girls in particular, but once we hit our thirties, the phone became the equivalent of junk mail. Did this have unintended consequences?

young woman in white-blonde wig wearing an orange jacket talking on a hot pink corded phone on dusty rose background
Licensed via Adobe Stock

Millennials, especially those of us on the older end who were born in Reagan’s second term, are a generation of many dualities. Duality comes up in so much of my work and I always thought it was just because of a vast amount of personal circumstances and life events.

But it turns out my entire generation is riddled with them. Our lives have been colored by hope and doom alike, and we watched technology and communications advance at different speeds.

We saw the end of the old world and the last decade of relative stability and prosperity for many Americans. We grew up with technology as it evolved, and for this very brief point in time before the social media boom of the late 2000s —the elder side of the Millennial cohort truly had the best of times where we were on the cusp. We had the best of the early 1990s with its toe still in the analog 1980s, and the early tech and Internet culture of the late 90s which gave way to the app-driven world of the 2000s ushered in, before inadvertently steering us down a slope of no return to the perpetually online hellworld we’d soon inhabit.

The fact that information wasn’t constantly in our faces and going online was a process with a distinctive start and end time, rather than a perpetual state, meant we also processed information far more slowly and lent more headspace to communications. Our dopamine receptors hadn’t yet degraded to a slippery piece of lemon after you’ve run it on a box grater to get a few microns of zest and a shit ton of fingernails.

So when many of us came of age, it was right around 9/11. I graduated high school and turned 18 two years after it. Communication technology was in the thick of its awkward teenage years when I was just coming out of mine.

We weren’t just shocked by isolated school shootings and catastrophic mass deaths before we’d grow numb to hundreds of thousands of people dying from a plague and sending kids to school with bulletproof backpacks. Fox News was beginning to soften and distort our parents’ brains, but the 24/7 news cycle hadn’t quite kicked in yet.

TiVO-ing your favorite TV show was a ceremonial task that seemed goddamn revolutionary after a lifetime of VHS and Beta tapes that always slipped out of those sleeves bedecked with jewel-toned geometry, which you’d marvel at before it promptly slipped out and fell on your bare foot.

Social media was still in vitro. Friendster, Xanga, MySpace, anyone? (A/N: We had no idea just what a mensch Tom was, how we took him for granted. He was everybody’s friend and once he got his Rupert Murdoch money, he just fucked off to Hawaii to take pictures and never had to testify before Congress. A unicorn among tech bros.)

Most of all?

We still cherished TALKING ON THE PHONE.

I noticed that when I’m in public these days, I don’t see nearly as many people talking on their phones as I did in the early-mid 2000s. I see them texting or tapping, and sound emanating from a phone is more likely to be an ad that accidentally plays (or streaming music and video with blatant disregard for innocent bystanders).

Even though I’d rather have long phone calls at home where I have more comfort and privacy, sometimes you just need to make or take a call outside.

That’s when it dawned on me: when WAS the last time I had a long phone call and it wasn’t with my dad or my HMO, the only phone numbers that seem to have any frequent use in my contacts?

I think it’s an honestly overlooked part of how we communicated and fostered bonds with friends and our communities, and ceasing phone calls made us accidentally weaken or even sever these connections.

Hear me out!

Okay, so you know how there’s a million and one articles about how Millennial loneliness has approached epidemic levels? As in 30% of Millennials reporting feeling extreme loneliness, 22% even say they have no friends?

I think the slow death of the phone call had more to do with that than capitalism alone.

Really. I know I snark a lot and live for getting satirical, but this isn’t a bit. I’m dead serious.

Hell, I think it’s even more to blame for our isolated fates than middle age sneaking up on us. Especially gigantic swaths of Millennials completely skipping out on having kids and/or marriage out of choice rather than circumstance.

Not everyone is single and/or sans kids by choice, and people often chalk up friendship deterioration being the last single girl standing or the only one without kids. And I can see why, because parents’ priorities definitely change and sometimes, peoples’ romantic lives can cause them to put less effort into friendships.

Then you got the so-called experts even trying to pin Millennial loneliness on the rise of remote work and freelancing/entrepreneurship, and I say NO. One of the chief reasons I always wanted my own business was being able to fit my work around time with my friends and the punk scene instead of the other way around. By the time I really had the cash and autonomy I needed for that, I wound up creating a more dispersed social life because I travel so much for business.

Because come on. With all these circumstances?

They should be a perfect storm for intrepid Millennial women to have the lives we dreamt of. I should be having this Sex and the City style friend co-op with at least two other childfree women I hang with all the time! Planning vacations together! Begging for a weekend by myself because we got so much autonomy over our careers and lives, and can go out frequently! Not…this lonely bullshit where I somehow did the complete inverse of what most a Millennials want and bought a condo in my city, just to no longer have any real professional or social reasons to stay. Where the pandemic revealed to me that I spend more time with my friends on the road and out west than I do here, hence my plans to move to Los Angeles.

And it turns out I’m far the only elder Millennial having a similar crisis. So how did we get here? I’m going to examine this strange phenomenon and how our modes of communication tie in.

Remember when we were kids, and having a corded phone in your own room was this status symbol?

Still of Saved By the Bell from the 1990s, Screech and Zack sitting at The Max while Zack’s on his hulking cell phone
©Disney // These beasts were SO aspirational back then, and the term “Zack Morris phone” still exists.

What makes the decline of the phone call so interesting is that we grew up wanting our own phones SO badly.

Phones were a shared phenomenon. Remember running to the phone, hoping you were the one who picked up if that was one of your friends calling so you could have Very Important Conversations in the closet about that classmate you both couldn’t stand and how you were developing an eternal crush on a B-list actor rather than the Tiger Beat heartthrob du jour?

It wasn’t enough to just have your own phone that got corded into the wall if you were lucky enough to have your own room. Having more than one phone line was the dream, so your parents would stop bitching about how much time you spent on the phone. Especially if it was your own line, and you could zap anyone else in the house who listened in on your conversation (especially if it was to complain to your friend about how you wished your asshole parents would get off your case already).

There was no call waiting and you had no idea who was behind the ringing. If another caller tried to get through after you were on the phone, they got a busy signal. Which was fantastic if that was your teacher calling about yet another thing to go traumatize you about, not so great if that was a family member having an emergency. The advent of call waiting and caller ID in the late 90s changed this, but it only enhanced our phone experience. Calls didn’t become something to just ignore by default until about 15 years later.

Cell phones were rare. You had to be wealthy and well-connected to have one. The only time I ever saw them in real life before 2001 was the occasional Wall Streeter using one to broker a merger near my grandma’s apartment, which was about half a mile from the World Trade Center. Cell phones of the 80s and 90s were these enormous bricks similar to the cordless landline phones that were the hot new thing to have in 1995, and it would’ve defied the laws of physics to keep one in the average purse. I can’t even fathom how the hell those executives kept them in briefcases. Laptops weighed a ton back then and their bags probably would’ve facilitated carrying cell phones of the day.

But technology was quickly evolving and the leviathan bricks soon transformed into a more portable form, the most notable being the Nokia 5110. Late 90s tech was delightfully colorful, like the iMacs, and this dazzling array of newly-accessible cell phones were no exception. The 5110 was more amenable to purses and pockets, and you didn’t need to be a drug dealer or record company executive to have one.

©GSM Arena // Remember using one of these to frantically find your friend after a crowded show, and you couldn’t text on them?

It was 1998, not all households had the Internet yet, and you could still only be reachable at certain times by landline. I certainly didn’t recall seeing cell phones regularly until I was a senior in high school in 2002.

But when we did get them? It was our wildest dreams come true.

The second calls became free at 9PM, I would talk to my girlfriends on the phone until it died. Just to ask them to call my dad’s landline, or have me call them from it, if I was home and no one else was using it.

2–3 hour calls were the norm for me once I was out of the house, and I talked to my friends from punk shows and friends I made online through sites like PunkConnect (where it was more about music and finding/booking shows, although we certainly used it to date and hook up in a kinder and gentler early Internet). While cells were becoming more common, I remember punching in landline numbers on my cell phone standing outside CBGB’s. I’d also make or receive calls from landline phones after a week or two of all-night AIM chats with a gentleman from PunkConnect where we sparked like a Bic against the hairspray we used to put up our mohawks. My shitty little flip phone had these annoying pins that had to be jammed into the charger just so, so when I finally got a Nokia brick? Being able to insert a cable and talk as it charged was dazzling, even though I couldn’t stray too far from the outlet.

It was such a different context than texting, DM-ing, and Zooming today. We had the frame of reference of phone time being desirable and sacred, always stolen from us, and just wanting to talk to our friends and dates without nosy family members around. So when we went off to college, or that first apartment, the army, or wherever else an unskilled 18-year-old went in 2003?

We’re busier than ever now yet being online and always reachable is this permanent state rather than a process. These technological advances that were supposed to improve our lives and communications inadvertently did the complete opposite. We’re overwhelmed, even when we’re not busy. Our dopamine receptors have been fried like anything that fits in the basket at Nathan’s on Coney Island.

And we now view the phone as junk mail, calls something to be dreaded.

Of course, there’s one upside to this: sometimes, texting or DM-ing is just what you need to do when you want to catch up with a friend and you can’t get together because of life getting in the way. You’re too exhausted to hold a conversation, so you send a GIF that celebrates an inside joke.

The fact that we weren’t always available, and neither were our modes of communication necessarily, made the people close to us not take us for granted. Being able to actually hear each others’ voices on a regular basis also strengthened our bonds when we couldn’t get together.

Though as lovely as it is to send a funny meme when you just don’t have enough mental energy for a full-blown conversation, I think we need to actually TALK more because it absolutely played a role in why my friendships of the past were stronger. And sure, texting is convenient when you’re on the bus or train and want to respect everyone’s quiet time. It’s also great we can send pictures, videos, and other things in a snap that would’ve made our 10-year-old brains explode in wonderment in 1995.

But on the flipside, this extreme pivot away from phone calls can also be used to just dismiss the people you’re close to or want to be close to. Yeah, it can be more mentally and physically taxing. But aren’t your close friends, and other relationships you want to cultivate, worth it? Look, even a blood family relationship is not guaranteed and a partner won’t necessarily be more permanent than a close friend.

Many people otherwise just blame loneliness on getting older, and that Millennials are experiencing it at earlier ages because of socioeconomic forces rather than tech alone.

Conventional wisdom says that you finish college, and you’re no longer around an automatic friend group. You have a smaller and more tight-knit group, and if you’re in an industry where you’re surrounded by other young people, maybe you just make work friends.

Well…my life wasn’t exactly conventional and I can put that notion to rest, and bring it all back to the uniquely stark evolution of communication that Millennials witnessed.

Because all those punk scene stories I got? Well, that was my life. It was completely unmoored to school and jobs, and my ballast for things until around 2016 when the rise of my career and the death of live music in NYC converged. I was 31.

I only did traditional college with a dorm and shit for two semesters. I dropped out, had a gap year, went back to college, dropped out again after my C-PTSD diagnosis, went back again, started a financial job the day of the Bear Stearns collapse, graduated to a full-blown recession.

I made friends with a couple in my statistics class who I honestly miss hanging with, but we just inadvertently fell out of touch sometime between grad school and starting my second company. Other than that? My social life had nothing to do with school.

I didn’t really hang out with anyone else or partake in campus life. City University is largely a commuter college. At my school in particular, I didn’t feel left out for dropping out and going back multiple times: many of my classmates in my accounting program already had jobs and families.

It was an experience that was more enriching than your average insulated college campus, and it helped me graduate with zero debt while I kept that rent-stabilized dump five blocks from school until I bought a condo.

When I wasn’t going to punk shows, loitering in the alternative quarter and bar-hopping there, playing with my band, or wishing I could just hurry this damn degree up so I could get a job already (just to get a nice big HAHA FUCK YOU from 2008), I was playing the first wave of indie adventure games and talking on the phone with my friends constantly. Because after one of my close friends left The Bronx, and the death of a band in Queens I played and hung with regularly, pretty much the only other friends near me were my bandmates in Yonkers. My friendships were dispersed, but we at least had our centrifuge downtown. Once THAT was gone though? That’s when things fell apart, rather than “Oh, your friends just got married and had kids while you didn’t!”

I could fill an entire essay or three entirely with the fall of the punk scene in NYC and how this place became so inhospitable to live music in general. But the point is, it was absolutely the mindset around our modes of communication that made people take each other for granted a lot less back then.

Now that you can just pick up damn near any device to talk to someone? We choose not to. Water, water everywhere and we’re dying of fucking thirst.

As COVID-19 continues to reshape society, hopefully in the post-vaccine world we will take each for granted a lot less despite the information overload and Zoom fatigue many of us are stricken with. Since I got Peter Steele-length roots coming in from my natural cerulean here, I’m not turning fucking Zoom on. It keeps disconnecting my mic anyway. Call me on that dated thing with buttons.

Game dev, writer, small biz & tax consultant to indie devs. Above all, socialist childfree shitposting crazy toad lady from The Fucking Bronx www.sonictoad.com

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