The Crisis of the Lonely Atoms

This is a guest post by Alex Hagen

No civilized state will execute
Someone who is ill
Till it makes the someone well
Enough to kill
in a civilized state,
As a poem does.

“Poem does.” Going Fast, Frederick Seidel

The future is a foreign country to be avoided at all costs.

Ask a child to imagine their future.

Firefighter, dancer, doctor, pilot, professional athlete, cop, movie star.

No child says “a forever child.”

Nor do adults often suggest permanent adolescence as a life goal for children.

We are facing a generation of unskilled 20-something men, largely unemployed, largely unconnected, largely irresponsible for a want of anything to be responsible for. They are living no one’s fantasy, but they fantasize constantly inside alternative worlds that provide pleasure and escape from a reality largely ignored. Call them the Lonely Atoms.

A significant percentage of white males in their 20s fail to show up for their own lives. They are unable to find a job. They are unwilling or uninterested in doing work, leaving home, or getting married. They play a lot of video games. Economist Erik Hurst of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago summarizes their situation aptly: “The life of these nonworking, lower-skilled young men looks like what my [12-year-old] son wishes his life was like now: not in school, not at work, and lots of video games.”

The Lonely Atoms are intractable: They cannot be compelled, chastened, cajoled, shamed to grow up. Observers, parents, and columnists take this for a crisis. But it is a crisis in the genitive case, belonging to the observer and not the observed. The Lonely Atoms are not present for the account. They are a large-scale retraction, walking off the stage of private and public life.

There is little novelty in side-stepping adulthood or conventional ideas of responsibility. Young adults chafe at the linear progression of college, career, marriage, family, home ownership—what Zorba the Greek called the “full catastrophe.” Dropouts, hippies, beatniks, hipsters, all the way back to the prodigal son. Dissipated youth have always been with us. But rebels rebel against an orthodox grain, from some place outside the mainstream. The Lonely Atoms have not sought out any such perch from which to wage their campaign, because they have no campaign, no agenda, and no particular viewpoint. What they have is a negative retreat, a self-exile that simultaneously takes the reading on the vital signs of the American Dream.

The American Dreamer has worn multiple guises and responded to multiple names, most of them gendered male: The self-made man, Ben Franklin’s industrious hustler, the immigrant dreamer, the Protestant work-ethicist, the organization man, and, of late, the disrupter and the Promethean entrepreneur. All these identities orbited a simple idea: they conferred structure through the ethos of getting ahead, whether by working harder or smarter —the Dream itself. The Dream was within reach, but not by faith alone. The Lonely Atoms index how much and how fast the power of the Dream has fallen.

There is little novelty in dropping out of the world. Nor is there much to be said for worrying about the dropouts as omens of a future already spoiled.

But the Lonely Atoms have elevated dropping out into a kind of pre-emptive strike against a tired dichotomy: either pursue the American Dream or seek an alternative defined in opposition to it. Rather than re-stitching the Dream into a palatable alternative —back to the land, a simple life, listening to your heart, the equipoise of work-life balance, the autonomy of DIY free agentism –- the Lonely Atoms discard the apparatus entirely. This rejection makes us anxious.  A lost generation can be reclaimed, reconstituted. But what of a stillborn generation, one that never emerged in the first place?

Atomic Numbers

  • In 2000, 10 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months. In 2015, the figure increased to 22%.
  • In 2000, roughly 35% of lower-skilled men in their 20s lived with a parent or close relative. By 2014, that number had increased to over 50% and, for those who were unemployed, it was 70%.
  • During the same time period (2000-2015), on average the lower-skilled men in their 20s increased “leisure time” by about four hours per week — three of those hours are spent on video games.
  • Lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s

Empirical data is a moveable feast for current-events journalism. This data makes it possible to hit all the high notes, the aporias of grief for the new normal: rising inequality, a groping after what masculinity ought to look like, and smug but anxious lip-flapping about how easily accepting of mediocrity we Americans have become. How happy it makes us.

Though the story comes in various packages — a solemn editorial in the New York Times, a polemic in Commentary, think-pieces in the Atlantic and the American Conservative — it shares a common trait: little effort is expended finding and giving voice to the stagnant demographic itself. The one exception is a write-up in the Chicago Tribune, which includes quotes from a 22-year old and 21-year old living with their parents. Their statements reflect the underlying thesis — finding, maintaining, and doing a job is hard, with uncertain rewards; playing a videogame, with its clear-cut system of reward and a sense of community, is more enjoyable.

But making sense of the Lonely Atomic Age requires more than numbers and trends. It means getting comfortable with an account that does not pretend to be an explanation. Naming the problem demographic is part of how we make the problem legible. Ian Hacking calls this “dynamic nominalism” in his essay “Making People Up.” The philosopher sees “our classifications and our classes conspire to emerge hand in hand, each egging the other on.” This is not to question that there is such a type as “lower-skill American males who live with their parents or a close relative, don’t work, aren’t in school, and play lots of videogames.” These individuals exist. But the individual identity of a person of this class is never explored.

Instead they are treated as fungible crumbs of the demographic itself. Their individual fates don’t matter; the salient point is what their collective inaction might signify for the rest of us. The category itself, the boxes checked to make someone a specimen, is something new, and it “conspires to emerge hand in hand” with the narrative of crisis.

The category and the narrative arrived in the wake of a financial meltdown, and more generally, in a time of increasing technological disruption. This disruption matters in the story of the Lonely Atoms.

Technology reduces demand for unskilled labor by making such workers expendable or unnecessary. An industrial economy becomes an information-age economy, and labor-intensive businesses become capital-intensive businesses keen to increase production and slash costs. It’s not hard to see how younger lower-skilled workers wind up under the boot of technological advancement.

As jobs vanish, ever-more captivating technologies of leisure make work itself less attractive. Erik Hurst states the issue plainly:

When making our work decisions, we compare the benefit of work—the wage—against the cost of working. What is the cost of working? We give up leisure. The more attractive our leisure time, the less we’ll want to work, holding wages fixed.

Is it possible that technology has changed the value of leisure? I think the answer is a definite yes . . . Certain technologies—such as video games and social media and the internet—have increased the value of leisure time. Not only do people report them as being more fun than watching TV or going to the movies, they also say they’re more interactive.

Hurst’s account is explicitly causal: technology makes leisure more valuable. So technological advancement whipsaws Lonely Atoms at both ends of the labor market. It decreases demand for workers, and increases the allure of not-working. The feedback loop tightens every time around: the more time spent giving in to leisure, the harder it becomes to locate meaningful work, which shrinks the possibilities to jobs that nearly anyone can fill.

Faced with the prospect of taking on a job that almost anyone can fill, a low-skilled worker often heeds the Marxist (Groucho) dictate: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

Suddenly the abdication of the Lonely Atoms can pass for a coherent, rational response. There is no meaningful work, but there is a glut of meaningful leisure. In previous generations, young men without a college education formed the backbone of the labor market and exemplified the simplest version of the American Dream: perform actual, physical hard work and move up in the world by it. The Lonely Atoms are apostates to this tradition, but not necessarily because they avoid work.

The data and the narratives cast the Lonely Atoms as myopic hedonists, perhaps trapped in a system that lures them to their sloth. The Atoms are cast as stupefyingly indifferent to the comeuppance that the world owes them. But in truth they are not indifferent to the future.

The future matters to them, in the same way that settling up matters to an unlucky gambler. The future is something to defer, a debt that is not yet due.

But so long as the universe keeps giving Lonely Atoms pellets of pleasure each time they power up and asks very little else in return, then boyhood remains a viable life choice. Boyhood means creating an artificial identity, “in here,” in the interactive world of dematerialized gaming and online communities, and then putting in long hours to preserve that identity, to perpetuate its veracity in the eyes of others. Lonely Atoms are men who live as boys would, if they could, for as long as they can.

Image credit: twitter profile image of Bartleby Bookstore

We Will Burn that Bridge when We Come to It: On the Logic of Preferring Not to.

Cortes burned his boats. The Lonely Atoms don’t do anything as dramatic. They must connect with parents, relatives, whoever keeps the fridge stocked and the lights on. That reliance is the heart of rejecting adulthood—if you cannot do these things for yourself, you cannot be an adult. There are no other universal milestones or rites of passage — no compulsory military service or agonistic coming-of-age rituals. Nothing is mandatory or natural – there is no automatic phase change. We are free as American adults to fail to be American adults.

The Lonely Atoms make perverted romance of the self, forever deferring the arrival of the day when they assume a speaking role in their own lives. And they don’t so much as wear the victimhood, as they appear to have slipped loose of its stigma.

Statistics and pundit clucking can orient the Lonely Atoms within an economic and cultural context, but they cannot touch the interior lives of Lonely Atoms. Understanding their strategy of eliding demands more than Department of Labor statistics.

The Lonely Atoms sabotage their own narratives. The choices they make assure that the plot does not move forward, does not accelerate onward, and does not extend outward. In their aversion to developing a life narrative, the Lonely Atoms appear to be conspiring against themselves. Their story is a bildungsroman minus the bildung and the roman.

The absence of an official biography does not mean we are left to data, and our own devices, in trying to trace out their trajectory. There are discrete clues out there, narrative threads to pull, as to why the Lonely Atoms might live as if something actually depended on their preference for inaction.

“Bartebly the Scrivener, or A Tale of Wall Street,” was published anonymously in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853, and not long afterward acknowledged as the work of Herman Melville. An unnamed lawyer narrates, describing a young man named Bartleby hired on as a scrivener in the lawyer’s chambers. A scrivener is a copyist, who replicates pre-existing versions of documents for use in business and legal matters. Bartleby does not present as a Lonely Atom. At the outset, he works maniacally:

As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.

But when asked to verify the accuracy of his copy, Bartleby replies, in a singularly mild, firm voice, “I would prefer not to.” This quickly becomes a refrain.

Whenever his employer makes requests of him, Bartelby prefers not to do whatever he is asked. He prefers not to run errands, prefers not to proof and edit his work or the work of others to assure that what has been copied matches the original, prefers not to answer questions about his past, prefers not to acknowledge that he has been fired, prefers not to leave his office quarters when the consequence of staying means going to prison. Spoiler alert: The imprisoned Bartleby prefers not to eat when the consequence of not eating is, well, dying.

The Lonely Atoms’ inaction and disengagement is Bartelbyean, to the extent that their lifestyle expresses, but does not care to justify, an inscrutable listlessness. They are a demographic who prefer not to. Prefer not to work. Prefer not to date, much less marry.

Prefer not to move out, or to leave town, or to get outside and enjoy the freaking sunshine. Prefer not to shape up or ship out, fly right, buckle down, get out, get some, or get their shit together. Prefer not to do almost anything that a young, virile, future-oriented American male might want to do, or be expected to want to do.

Descriptions of Bartleby throughout the story mark him as a passive, unreadable spectre. He first arrives at the narrator’s office as “a motionless young man.” The narrator goes on to recall: “I can see that figure now — pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” Later in the story he appears as an “apparition,” and still later he bears a “cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance.” Bartleby is scrupulously self-contained. Appeals to his sense of reason or practicality do not sway him, and he is likewise impervious to the negative consequences that come from his preferring not to.

Part of preferring not to is never saying why: Opacity in one’s preferences, obscurity in one’s allegiances. In this sense, Bartleby may be usefully contrasted with Thoreau, who models a different resistance. Bartleby is not a civil disobedient. He does not narrativize the preference-not-to or speak in declarative pronouncements, i.e., “I simply wish to refuse allegiance, to withdraw.” Thoreau alights to Concord jail because that is “the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits;” These truly free men go to her prisons “to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.” To Thoreau, principles, not preferences, are the bedrock for meaningful action.

There is no such equivalent for Bartleby, no ethos from which to proceed. There are only negative preferences. Bartleby goes to jail, and dies there, because he prefers not to swerve from his position, even just enough to avail himself of the aid proffered by others.

When Bartleby’s former employer, the narrator of his story, finds out that his scrivener has been imprisoned in the Tombs as a vagrant, he travels to the prison and finds an officer. The lawyer pleads that Bartleby be granted as “indulgent confinement as possible till something less harsh might be done.” He then goes out to courtyard in the interior of the jail and finds Bartleby, who predictably prefers not to converse.

The narrator is then approached by “a grub-man,” who, for a price, provides prisoners in the Tombs with food. The narrator pays the grub-man to provide for his former employee. But after being introduced to the grub-man and invited to dinner, Bartleby prefers not to eat.

The narrator, unable to quiet his guilt at witnessing Bartleby’s refusals, visits again a few days later. He comes again to the courtyard and sees “the wasted Bartleby” lying on his side, knees drawn up, huddled against a wall. The narrator leans over, looks into Bartleby’s dim open eyes, and touches his hand. Dead. The grub-man appears and addresses the narrator: “His dinner is ready. Won’t he dine to-day either? Or does he live without dining?” “Lives without dining,” said [the narrator], and closed the eyes.”

It is fashionable to claim Bartleby for critical theory, as an exemplar of pure refusal, a state of being against everything, rather than against x, y, or z. Bartleby’s passive resistance fascinates philosophically. Speaking of the forlorn copyist, the narrator observes: “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” And it is the ability of passive resistance to aggravate (in whatever fashion, or to whatever theoretical end) that turns Bartleby into a departure point for much theorizing, the emblem of an ethic of rejection.

The Lonely Atoms will serve no such purpose. Following such a grandiose arc would be out of character. All else being equal, they would like to be happy on their own, hermetically-sealed terms. For them, preferring not to is not an ethic. It is a means of maximizing happiness – not as a future goal, but as a presently achievable and consumable good. They will not reject their grub-man.

As putative Bartlebies, Lonely Atoms are not protesting their place at the bottom of the proverbial pecking order. They are not calling for change, joining a reactionary formation, or either participating in or resisting the social order. The Lonely Atoms don’t believe or disbelieve in the social order; they don’t participate in or work to displace it.

But it is not passive resistance, but their loneliness, that places Lonely Atoms in Bartleby’s shadow. Loneliness isn’t only a description of the Atoms — it is their constitutive MO, the predicate of their self-fashioning. The desire to maintain loneliness is ambivalent, in that it contains contradictory impulses: to be unreachable and protected, to limit what can be done to them, in order to carve out space for interactivity and connection.

This is where the wish fulfillment of self-exile comes into sharp relief. The Lonely Atoms don’t believe in the dialectic. But the dialectic believes in them.

Turning the Crisis-Talk Crank

The World contains
Princes for arms, and Counsailors for
braines,
Lawyers for tongues, Divines for hearts and more,
The Rich for stomachs, and for backes the Poore;
The officers for hands, Merchants for feet
By which remote and distant Countries meet.

John Donne, An Anatomie of the World

From the beginning, the American body politic clocked itself as a discrete entity, a sovereign thing-unto-itself greater than the sum of its parts.  Having fought a war to excuse themselves from the oversight of a King, Americans needed to replace the symbol of a crown.  As a figurative embodiment of the republic’s health, the notion of a civic corpus put flesh on the bones of egalitarian abstraction.

After the revolution, the Founders marked self-interest as the most immediate threat to the body politic.  In Federalist No. 10, Madison wrote of “faction” as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.  

In the body metaphor, faction could be contained by preventative medicine (separation of powers, checks and balances, a bicameral legislative body, etc.), but never entirely cured. Special interests were neither malignancies to be excised, nor foreign agents to be expelled.  Factions were a chronic condition of the democratic organism.

But Lonely Atoms cannot be understood in terms of the narrative of self-interest running counter to the body politic.  They are becoming a vestigial demographic, one with no clear allegiances or interests to which appeal may be made.  The Lonely Atoms have no positive legitimating function, something they do that can be named and used to identify who they are.  They likewise stake no claim on publicly held goods, make no grievances.

The absence of coherent political desires means the state has no way to approach the Lonely Atoms.  They have no faction.  Theirs is an anti-citizenship defined not by resistance or support, but by absence and withdrawal.  They show no signs of changing course, or rather, choosing a course at all.

The idea that they should do something, anything, to exit out of the cycle of dependency makes desperate sense from outside that cycle.  But from the interior perspective of the Lonely Atom, there is no avenue of personal development that can either stop the future or make it bearable. No incentive can make the prospect of repudiation less attractive.  And besides, they are happy enough with what very little they have.

An American famously has the right to make him- or herself happy, the freedom to instantiate pleasure wherever it can be found.  And there is no sign that this right will be abridged or even reconceived.  No war on video-game self-exile is in the offing, anymore that there could be a war on self-delusion.

Just as the Lonely Atoms have re-calibrated the value of work and pleasure, their predicament recalibrates the private and the public.  Cleaving to home, remaining dependent on parents, is not just a rejection of adulthood.  It delays the Atoms’ appearance as their own demographic, as a legible sub-set of the civitas.

Lonely Atoms have no need to join the body politic, no ask to make of it.  The domestic realm suffices, so long as it tolerates what their idiosyncratic “pursuit of happiness” looks like.  It is an altogether private pursuit, untethered from the regenerative torch-passing by which the body politic sustains itself.

The Lonely Atoms (again, like Bartleby) brush off the expectation of being folded into the body politic with “gentlemanly, cadaverously nonchalance.”  And that dead-end turns the interventionist impulse back on itself.  The body politic cannot take the brushoff with any semblance of grace.

The state has little positive incentive to offer to induce the Atoms to mature, and no real leverage to strong-arm a change if they continue to balk.  The no-carrot, no-stick scenario partially explains why the crisis of the Lonely Atoms does not belong to the Lonely Atoms.

Crisis-talk aerates anxiety by giving it a means of expression.  A diagnosis is offered publicly as a response to what is perceived to be going on, which brings more attention to what is going on, and more attention to the subject of the diagnosis.  Initiatives, committees, white papers, and bureaucratic noblesse oblige are the outer bounds of what “bringing attention” to a problem amounts to.

But having called a crisis into being is just the half of it.  A crisis is an occasion for action, ill-conceived or not. Doing something for the sake of having done it is the accepted response to meaningful crisis-talk.  Doing something in the wake of a crisis always seems, post facto, a responsible choice, even if there was no epistemic warrant for what was done.

Sustaining the body politic depends on a succession plan, a process of inheritance.  So the body politic wants the Lonely Atoms to become well, to shake off their stupor and come back within the fold.  But it has no leverage to induce reclamation, no way to metabolize these indifferent charges.  There is no redemptive pathway back to the past that a Lonely Atom could travel down and bootstrap himself back into the American Dream.

The Lonely Atoms’ passive listlessness becomes a congenital defect, an outer sign of an inner failing.  Without the right to take away their happiness of indifference, crisis-talk’s function is to find a way to get between Lonely Atoms and their happiness.  And so crisis-talk must speak solicitously to the Lonely Atoms, to make it known that they will not be vilified, so long as they accept the diagnosis and pin their pathology to their sleeve.  This is a delicate challenge, as no diagnosis exists.  The pathology of underachievement does not hit the Lonely Atom where he lives; very little could.

Functus Officio:  An Epilogue in Three parts

1.

Melville ends his tale of Bartleby, not with the scrivener’s death, but with a gossipy epilogue from the narrator, which famously ends:  “Ah, Bartleby!  Ah, humanity!”  It’s unclear (to me at least) if this is an enigmatic gesture toward the universal or a narratorial expiation.

But the epilogue is notable for the glimpse of Bartleby before he entered the frame of the story.  The narrator recounts “a little item of rumor” relayed to him a few weeks after Bartleby died, concerning his late employee’s former life.   The item holds that Bartleby was a “subordinate clerk” in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.  Dead letters are those that are “undeliverable as addressed,” and there remains an entire layer of bureaucracy within the postal service devoted to ascertaining whether dead letters truly are lost and undeliverable.  So Bartleby’s task was to sort through and dispose of dead letters, burning them by the cartful.  And this leads to the narrator’s extended rumination on what the right letter, expressing the right sentiment, might have meant to a person who was its intended recipient, but who was, in some fashion, wrongfully addressed.

2.

A dead letter is also a euphemism for someone whose office has been discharged, whose official power or authority to act no longer exists.  A dead letter is a placeholder, an empty vessel, and there are two permutations out of which a person may become one:  either by having performed whatever function he or she was assigned, or by having the period in which performance might take place expire.  The first is a person whose power has been used up; the second is one whose time has run out.

3.

What we have here is a dead letter to a dead letter problem.

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Comments

  1. This is so well written, so powerful…
    I am left with many thoughts in my head. One in particular: is there anything about women in the same conditions? is this notably a male phenomenon and if so why? that’s something to explore.

    • I think the phenomenon is gendered male. At least in how it gets presented and covered – there is also a statistical break between how the male demo appears to be doing, job and opportunity wise, and his female counterparts are doing. That’s at a high level of abstraction, but it’s not immaterial. – AH

    • まるまる says:

      there’s plenty of women in similarly shitty conditions, the focus on males (like the focus on male hikikomori in JP) is a lot more a case of how the media presents it and not a function of the lack of female workshy people.

    • Italymich says:

      The analogue women manage to fix their mood by typing series of

      #happy
      #inlove
      #nevertrump
      #alwaysjustice
      #inlovewithmyself

      and scattering them about on social media, triggering the compliment and social niceties exchange with their female peers.

      Social media, and the possibility to take photographs of their every moment as they pose like only celebrities were allowed to yesteryear, are filling their life presently.

      • That’s just a different kind of videogame, really.

      • That could be it’s own problem, but I don’t see the analogue with Lonely Atoms. Looking good for one’s peers and building community is still a kind of connection to the real world, however frivolous. You can still fuck it up and feel bad, unlike video games that let you endlessly simulate situations until you succeed.

  2. Your “lonely atoms” seem to parallel the “slackers” in Venkat’s slacker/clueless/sociopath trichotomy. The slackers were rationally disengaged from work, believing (correctly) that any effort beyond the bare minimum was unlikely to be rewarded. Lonely atoms appear to believe (probably correctly) that politics and romance are equally unrewarding.

    • The term in my account is loser, not slacker, and no, they are completely unrelated archetypes. Losers in the Gervais model are strongly socially engaged. In fact that’s what they optimize for.

      This archetype does not exist in the universe of work but outside of it.

      • Agreed. I don’t see a strong Gervais principle connection. Via a vis Venkat’s stuff, I think of this more as scribbling in the margins of “pretending to care, pretending to agree,” “on freedom spotting” and some of the earlier life-script sequence.

      • It seems like the same phenomenon in different domains to me. People become disengaged when they don’t perceive a net benefit from engaging. One guy who does this may be crazy; a million are probably rational.

        The idea that romance is unrewarding is an ancient one. One of the earliest stories we ever wrote involves a naked woman getting together with a snake and ruining everything. If you’re wondering what the snake symbolized, remember that we hadn’t invented subtlety back then and the Bible was written by married guys. The relatively recent invention of birth control gave people a chance to figure this out before it was too late.

        Also note that any given person’s chance of winning the lottery is much greater than their chance of making a significant difference in politics.

        Their disengagement seems kinda rational to me.

        • Then Paul comes around in the New Testament and outright says people would be better off staying away from women and marriage and the whole lot.

  3. So, this is an entry talking about NEETs, right?

  4. anonymous says:

    I hesitate to write this but feel some possiblity of elucidation since I am borderline/recovering from being one of these people and as such have also interacted with similar others quite a lot.

    The elephant in the room is the perception of deteriorating gender relations from both sides of the aisle for the millenial generation.

    Consider the shifting incentives and look to Japan as the leading edge. From the male side of things, it used to be that jockeying for position might swap you up the assortive mating ladder one place. But if one is so far down the totem that such striving is not reinforced with more positive attention from the opposite sex, then where is the calibration signal supposed to come from? Certainly not authority figures who refuse to acknowledge it as an assortive mating issue.

    From the female side of things, why on earth would you commit to a loser when you can throw yourself at a high value male and pretend that because he will engage in short term mating with you that there is some chance of long term commitment (there isn’t). Men go down the quality ladder in order to get short term mating, women go up. after having lots of exciting experiences, many are unwilling to settle for a mate of their actual level of value, or if they do it is a relationship with an undercurrent of resentment.

    These two sides of the coin feed off each other. And cities are shifting towards a winner takes all distribution in mating as well as money.

    So one can strive as hard as one wants and wind up in a poor quality relationship (and examples of such likely exist in the Lonely Atoms’ social network) or just check out.

  5. I enjoy this on all parts that are not explicitly derisive and polemic. It gets more to the roots of the problem than most articles but commits the same errors of implying NEETs are “happy”, ” lazy”, “selfish” and so on. Go on wizchan, /r9k/, anywhere where NEETs are likely to be, then continue the insulting tone as if one is speaking of a recalcitrant child.

    This is ribbonfarm so I’d suggest you’d do well to read Sarah Perry’s work on effective suicidality.

  6. Several years ago I had a long-distance, mostly online relationship with a Lonely Atom. I was struggling with depression at the time, and found his position relatable, but while I gradually “got better,” he stayed right where he was. We kept in touch for a few years after I broke things off, and I began to pity him. From my position his life seemed in such a terrible state of despair, but he felt no motivation to do anything differently. Eventually I came to decide that his life was up to him, and there was nothing I could do. I don’t think he’d want my pity, said so nowadays I try not to think about him much.

    I couldn’t “help” one person, so I feel hopeless at the prospect of addressing an entire group. As for contemplating some sort of “solution,” well, I’d rather not.

    I think it’s very difficult to think about Lonely Atoms, but I suppose it’s not a bad idea to tell or remind people that they exist. Good post.

  7. Ask a child to imagine their future.

    Firefighter, dancer, doctor, pilot, professional athlete, cop, movie star.

    No child says “a forever child.”

    Am I the only one who did say that? I never had any particular desire to grow up and Be Something. After all, it was pretty easy – and utterly, existentially dreadful, terrifying even! – to see at age six that when the teachers gave us our first-grade homework, and told us there would be more in second grade, that if I tried to follow where they were pointing, my life would be utterly consumed by work and I’d never have any fun or enjoy myself ever again.

    The real damage to my life came later: by the time I realized that I genuinely wasn’t going to be satisfied with the NEET lifestyle, that the archetype I’d adopted as normatively mine didn’t fit me, that there really were things I actually want to do, my childhood and adolescence had already passed, and I was already a complete fuck-up. I’d done just enough to look great on paper while actually being miserable and mediocre: a useful job skill and a salary, a loving relationship and now a marriage.

    But no more fulfillment than any salaried worker has ever had from any of it, nor the games-and-pizza fulfillment of NEET perma-boyhood.

    Ah, and now that I’ve gone and fucked-up that badly, society displays little inclination to spend any resources on helping me fix the problem. I may now be an ambitious, hardworking person with a sense of direction, a desire to improve myself, and a calling to fit me into working society, but I’m not a child anymore, so why invest in a loser who wasted his one chance?

    I insist and continue to insist: you wouldn’t have “Lonely Atoms” if society didn’t consider itself entitled to the ambition of young adults, entitled to receive our intensity, our passion, and most of all our labor-power without ever having to grant anything in return. When career paths are unstable, job tenures short, jobs hard to get, wages low, youth unemployment hard, rigorous degrees scarce and expensive — why should we bother? Any adulthood we truly want will be out-of-reach anyway.

  8. I agree with many of the assertions made about Lonely Atoms, especially that there is a connection between a sense of disillusionment/disenfranchisement with traditional social/professional development and the draw of virtual lifestyles such as videogames and social media.

    However, my experience, as an early thirties male with a PhD, varied work experience, married and relatively confident in my professional/personal position as it stands in traditional society, is that my skill level and personal development has come in fits and bursts and that I am and have been periodically in a state approaching a Lonely Atom’s withdrawal and fixation with virtual pursuits.

    For example, while completing my PhD I was periodically extremely busy and periodically adrift (in between teaching/research and in periods of long distance in my relationship). I would defer the ‘work/engagement’ as often as I could to maximise the pleasure derived from extended periods of leisure. I could easily have spread out that work, filling my time with more ‘useful’ activities, but there seemed little point. I was also living at home as my full-time studies were not fully funded. I had a relationship that I could only engage with in bursts. I didn’t ‘need’ to work any more part-time jobs if I sustained that position and rationalised that it reduced my stress level and helped me finish my doctorate. But, at times, I was definitely depressed and felt guilty, unproductive and listless. Happiness was derived from gaming, mainly, and I felt angry, bitter at doing anything that would disrupt me from ‘coasting’ in a virtual state while ‘waiting’ for other life commitments to pull me back out….

    This type of temporary Lonely Atom status has come and gone since I was a teenager, often during bouts of intense work and then intense inactivity (from outwardly engaged activities). But the time spent as a LA definitely stretched the gaps between activity. It made it harder and harder to rationalise being engaged and motivated with the outside world.

    I’ve struggled with this for years – feeling guilt or a sense of resentment. But, given that I haven’t really been negatively affected by it, I have often seen it as a somewhat balanced part of my lifestyle or even an ‘interest’. I have made it work. I don’t think of myself as a loser and I don’t think I am seen that way (well, hopefully).

    Nevertheless, the Lonely Atom part of me remains a bit of a hidden threat/addiction.

    So, what is the difference between my experience and the experience of the Lonely Atoms discussed here? Is it skill? Education?

    I wonder if the issue here is not that a specific group of people are susceptible to a specialised kind of disenfranchisement from society, but that many people are dealing with this same sense of disengagement with reality and engagement with virtual realities. The nature of work has changed. We have a gig economy. Drastically increased student numbers. Dating has gone online.

    Is the problem that those who do not develop skills or education simply find it harder to play this delicate balancing act between the physical and the virtual that many millennials (and other generations) and forced to manage?

    In this case, wouldn’t this basically describe the same disadvantage that those who do not get a proper education or develop skills have always had? The results are just different. Today, those with less education/skills sit at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, as they always have, but instead of being put to work in low-paid, mundane jobs that can have a negative impact on social lives, they resist traditional work altogether and ‘coast’ on handouts/free board while perhaps taking the occasional ‘gig.’ They are more able to live like this because they do not face the same pressure to get married and have kids that previous generations faced. Technology has also provided avenues for social engagement that is relatively cheap (social media/ gaming).

    The irony of all of this is that virtual/digital/tech-based work and social engagement is now seen as incredibly valuable to society. So, there are avenues from virtual disengagement to virtual engagement that are just a ‘real’ as having a 9-to-5 job as a plumber. Many people will swing between paths of productive engagement with technology and unproductive engagement, but this is not so different from how we have always tried to balance work and leisure. Again, the better education and higher skilled folks always have the advantage here, often because of their socioeconomic start in life.

    At any rate, I’m not certain this constitutes a new disadvantage. It’s potentially the same disadvantage, but played out in a digital age.

    • Just to add…

      Yes, one difference is the sense of ‘prefer not to…’ do anything that characterises the LA and potentially separates them from the previous generations unskilled groups…

      But again, the digital shift can explain this, because it depends how you characterise ‘not doing’. Yes, they’re not doing what many people consider traditional activities for their peers. However, they are doing something. Just virtually. They are engaged in plenty of action in videogames or on social media and online forums. So can we really call that listless?

  9. I feel the lonely atom part of me. When I am between work contracts, it comes out ot play, and even when I am working I have to fight against its pull.

    Why do I fight? Empathy and morality. I will not be a uselss burden to others. This is the thought that saves me from dependence. That’s what keeps me engaged and away from the video game life (although my version would be reading beneath a tree for the rest of time).

    Why am I drawn into the Lonely Atomic Realm? The real world… grates. Everything seems too heavy. And I am all too aware of my own powerlessness. The worls is controlled by collective corporate grasping and the bullies with the loudest megaphones, so what the heck is the point?

    Maybe I’m just depressed, but also I think this world of ours encourages depression. I always read Bartleby as about depression and listlessness, rather than resistance and revolution.

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