"What an unexpected treat!”: The darker side of why millennials revel in cancelled plans

Behind viral tweets revelling in time alone is an uncomfortable truth: millennials struggle to have, and keep, friends. So what's going on?

February 07, 2020
Not content with killing the diamond industry and housing, millennials are now killing the concept of "friends". Photo: Prospect composite
Not content with killing the diamond industry and housing, millennials are now killing the concept of "friends". Photo: Prospect composite

We millennials have killed many things; long lunches, diamonds, mayonnaise, take your pick. It is our way: we see something the generations before us liked and, mercilessly, we throw our heads back, laugh and put an end to it.

Well. Something along those lines. Often, stories about selfish and weird young people no longer enjoying parts of what society gladly offered them hides a sadder, more structural issue.

Millennials killed long lunches because they are expected to work longer hours and eat a bleak-looking salad at their desks instead; they killed diamonds because working those long hours still doesn’t mean they earn a good enough wage to afford them.

In a similar vein, it is worth wondering exactly what younger people are doing to their own friendships, and why they might be doing it. Or, to put it bluntly: are millennials really killing off the very idea of human socialisation?

'You're cancelled!'

It certainly looks like it, if you spend enough time on social media. Take on recent tweet pitching a new tech start-up: “The app is called ‘You’re Cancelled.’ When you’ve made plans that you wish you could cancel, you go into the app and press a little button. If the other person presses theirs too, congratulations! Confetti exploded and your plans are cancelled.” At the time of writing, it has been retweeted over 18 thousand times, and liked over 168 thousand times.

It is an amusing idea, but also one part of a wider genre. Before @mattiekahn’s app idea, there was @breatheandlove’s “I'm so glad it's Friday tomorrow and I can finally cancel all my weekend plans at the last minute.” There was also @effinghandbook’s “People who cancel our plans before I get up the courage to cancel them myself are my kind of people.” There was even @thatramosgirl’s “My friend just cancelled plans right before I left the house and it feels like I won $100 on a scratch off. What an unexpected treat!”—and many, many, many others.

Far from being something you may quietly think but never say out loud, being glad your plans to see your friend(s) have fallen through is now a popular topic of memes and discussions online. Sometimes it’s bragged about through the lens of introversion, a trait people who spend a lot of time on social media enjoy talking about. Sometimes it’s self-care: it is important for people to take care of themselves before taking care of each other and yes, that can mean having to put yourself first once in a while.

It can also be discussed in groups of people who have mental health issues or chronic illnesses: maybe people made some plans when they felt in the right brainspace to do so, but once the day comes, they find that they are not capable of leaving the house and socialising.

The flipside of relief

As often with online discourse, none of those conversations is inherently bad; in fact, it can be healthy for people to acknowledge that though friendships are important, it is normal not to yearn to see all of our friends, all of the time.

Having to cancel on friends for a genuine reason can also be nerve-wracking - until recently at least, flakes didn’t have the best reputation - and being able to be open about circumstances meaning that you cannot be as social as you’d wish can help alleviate guilt.

Still, there is a natural flipside to this: if you keep scrolling past your social network’s posts about the joys of not seeing your friends, you may start wondering if your own friends ever really enjoy seeing you.

When everyone around you publicly revels in staying at home and watching Netflix because their evening out was cancelled at the last minute, it can be hard to avoid the conclusion that you shouldn’t bother organising those evenings out in the first place.

Dog bites man

Planning to see friends—picking a date and a place that suits everyone—can be hard work, so getting the feeling that the other parties are crossing their fingers in the hope that you can no longer make it is disheartening at best.

Ideally, a solution would be for people to also talk about the positives of socialising, too—but much like journalism, online content is at its best when expressing something unusual or controversial.

As journalism students are taught that “man bites dog” is a story but “dog bites man” isn’t, a tweet saying something you shouldn’t admit out loud will always fare better than “I saw my friends tonight and it was nice!”

Social media posts also need to shed all wider context in order to remain snappy, just like those headlines about millennials killing diamonds and boozy lunches.

In both cases and this one, however, the truth is a bit more complicated than that.

I blame the tube

Without wishing to play the armchair anthropologist, it should be obvious that people may be less inclined to be social if, for example, they live on the outskirts of big cities because that’s all they can afford, and even then, it leaves them with little money to live on.

If you’re an hour’s journey away from your closest cluster of friends and have a few hundred pounds at most to last you the whole month after rent and bills, the prospect of staying home instead can be a relief.

Speaking of which: on top of being cheaper, staying home is now more fun than it ever was. The explosion of streaming sites means that it is virtually impossible to run out of things to watch to entertain yourself, no matter how picky you are.

Inhaling Russian Doll or Sex Education while lying down on the couch is also more relaxing than going to a crowded bar and paying £7 a pint, all for the privilege of not hearing what people are saying to you because the music is just too loud.

After having spent many hours at a desk doing soul-sucking, precarious work with no hope of career progression on the horizon, “relaxing” sounds especially appealing. It isn’t that you hate your friends, really: in an ideal world you would see more of them, but it isn’t an ideal world, and so you must ration your outings.

Millennial loneliness

There are many valid reasons why young people may want to spend more time alone and wryly post about it on social media. A modest request would be that they consider not making the plans in the first place: that way, no one is left anxiously hoping that their meet-ups get cancelled, and no-one is left wondering whether the other party actually is looking forward to meeting up.

A more encompassing plea would be to stop and consider the positives of having a social life. More of an effort needs to be made, admittedly, but the rewards are higher too: if you have a rubbish job and live in a rubbish flat, there is nothing quite like spending time with people you love to make you forget about your rubbish life, at least temporarily.

Quiet comfort is an easy way out but ultimately a lonely one: if you do not tend to your friendships they will wane, and you will probably come to regret it when watching Netflix on the couch doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

It also shouldn’t be forgotten that having a group of friends to rely on is a privilege: a recent study in the US found that 22 per cent of millennials had no friends, 27 per cent no close friends, and 30 per cent no best friend.

This is especially sad because loneliness has been proven to have endless negative effects on health and quality of life, from dying younger to suffering from depression, heart disease or dementia.

At the end of the day, no one really needs a bottle of wine with lunch, or a shiny ring on their finger, but it would be a shame if millennials really were to let their circumstances kill off their friendships.

And as for mayonnaise: the jury is still out.