Untethering from the American Dream

Dr. Julie Albright

Digital Sociologist

Untethering from the American Dream

What does it mean to be an adult today? The traditional paths woven into the fabric of our society have evolved. Careers, families, relationships, communities — the lines that once connected us are blurring together and being rewritten with each new generation. Dr. Julie Albright analyzes the structures and systems that make up the latest wave of untethered citizens of the world.

I looked at a number of studies that were coming out from a variety of fields — psychology, communications, business, sociology — just all sorts of things, and I noticed a general pattern emerging. And this is that young people, particularly Millennials and generations following now, are unhooking from traditional ways of doing things, from social institutions. You could think of family, long-term career, the church, political parties. All these sorts of things their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents would have done routinely, they're completely unhooking from these things.

Let’s just pick an era that we know, which is the post-world War II Era. Sociologists call that the Golden Age of the family. We know that all the servicemen came back and people got married and moved out to the suburbs, and they got a little house with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and the dog, and the car. And that was it. That was their American Dream and that's what they were striving for and going for. Showing off their new family wagon that they had. And kids now, I mean the majority of them, are not living in their own families like that. They're not having a career that spans decades. They are choosing not to have kids or not to get married or to marry multiple people. 

We’re reconfiguring the world in ways that were never dreamed of back then. The pathways to adulthood were fairly clear, clearly delineated, and kind of simple, if you will. Like my mother used to say, “Well, I had kids ‘cuz that's what you do.” So the mindset was that you do these things in this order. Well now, with the plethora of opportunities shown on, let's say, Instagram, be it traveling the world or having all these partners or being a different gender, it's sort of deconstructing what it means to be an adult. That's why I call it hacking the American Dream and using digital technologies to date, to meet, to have a career where you're free to move about by freelancing. Maybe you're using some of these platforms to do that. So, it's just sort of reconfiguring what adulthood looks like, good and bad. 

When you think about that from the business-world perspective, what does that mean? Well, if you have, for example, a 30-year mortgage on a house, you get a spouse with a job nearby. You get your kid in school. You get roots in a community. You put down roots; you're going to be there awhile. But, cut all those things off, you know Church, all these things, and you’re suddenly untethered,  just sort of floating free. And at this point about half of Millennials are freelancing. A lot of them are going into this #vanlife. “Let’s have an adventurous life; live in a van. Go backpacking through Europe. Go live in Bali for a while and work remotely.” 

So, it's really enabled, because of this disconnection, it's enabled a whole new plethora of ways of living – where you live how you live – and all these new configurations emerge. That has a big impact again on the workforce and managing and with the perks are for young people. The whole situation changes when you suddenly rethink from the nuclear family model that we’re so used to the untethered model which has been ushered in by the digital era. 

I always say coming untethered means coming “unmoored.” That idea that young people have pulled up roots from traditional ways of living — buying a home where you are going to be there for 30 years with your 30-year mortgage. Or getting married or having kids. Or being part of the Church community. These are things generations did routinely. And now young people are pulling up. What we learned from the earliest sociological studies is that being woven into the social fabric also bolsters both physical and mental wellness, it turns out. And you can think about that. The support of the community, for example that if something's wrong you can ask your neighbor for help or a family member or a church member. You pull away from all these things and we haven't yet built new social structures to take their place. Instagram doesn't really do it. So that’s the thing. We’ve quickly pulled away from the anchoring structures and society. We haven't really built the new ones yet to take their place, so we're in this kind of liminal period where we're not here nor there and that's causing some of the emotional problems, mental health problems, we're seeing amongst young people.

There are students now, I've seen in the schools, there's a little sort of backlash movement. “Hey let's set our phones aside and have a meal,” or a campfire or discussion just for that period of time. Or hike. For example there's a group called Brick. There's a group of people that's singing together for an hour or two, a big group of people singing. That’s beautiful. I'm not trying to throw our devices out, but I'm saying that we need to have a balance and remember our embodied self so that we’re mentally healthy, physically healthy, and connected, and in relationships. This is how we're wired and we certainly need to remember that again.

Kids & Technology

Children are being introduced to digital technology, such as iPads and tablets, as early as their crib phase. How is that affecting the way these digital natives are thinking and communicating?

We know that from neuropsychology and psychology studies that there's something called brain plasticity – that brains are plastic or malleable at very young ages based on their input. So, the toys you play with, the talking to or not. All these things have an impact on the development of our neural pathways. We're giving infants now iPads and smartphones in the bassinets, in the cribs excetera, excetera, before they're requiring language which tells me that their brains are going to be wired differently than yours. They're going to think differently than you do. We don't know what all the implications of that are yet but that's what's happening.

It's really interesting because kids are now more used to, and the studies are showing us, kids are more likely to talk with their best friends with a device than they are face-to-face. So they're more used to mediated communication, and I can tell you some of the impacts. I've seen it firsthand, again, with the college students coming in, young students. They're less likely to emote on their face, so they're not as good at reading nonverbal cues or giving nonverbal cues because they use emojis in texts and things. Emojis being prosthetic emotions, in a sense. So their face is mute but they're laughing wildly and crying they’re laughing so hard with an emoji. So, then they don't have to signal that with their face. If you're talking to them for example: happiness > mute face. Sadness > mute face. Excitement> mute face. You're going to see some cross-age miscommunications as a result of that. I had a student, for example, she went to an internship and I overheard her talking to another student in my class saying, “Well my boss, he told me something and he apparently didn’t get the reaction he wanted to get. So I just envisioned a delicious pizza and that gave the face that he wanted to see or was expecting to see.” This work around to give an emotive face tells you everything, in a sense. There’s some of those interesting things going on that are very subtle, but that will have a big impact. Especially across-age communication and face-to-face communication. 

Also, things like calling on the phone. People talk about calling up and then an awkward silence. Less experience making phone calls. How to break the ice on a cold call? How to talk to somebody? How to start the conversation? So even conversations in themselves as opposed to texting so the art of conversation. In the business world, you have to do some one-on-one training on stuff that you never would have thought of before, like how to make a cold call. 

Particularly very young children, the thinking is to limit their exposure to digital technologies. You know, very very young children having that face-to-face time, interacting with them. Otherwise, it is kind of an isolating thing. Using it as a sort of digital babysitter in a sense so there's some thinking about that. Just limiting it.

Also, I would say for the family and for the relationships and for practicing the skills we are talking about. Setting aside what we could call “sacred spaces” where you don't have a device, like for example, the family dinner table. Let's just have our devices set aside and check in with everybody. Having an actual conversation, learn to connect even though at first it might be difficult or awkward, eventually I think even the kids are going to appreciate that little time off. I guess I want to say here, since the inception, there are qualities baked into these apps that make you want to keep coming back for more. They’re, in a sense, addictive in a way. So you know, it's very hard to make that time but you have to be conscious about it. A little more conscious use of technology, I guess.

The Technology of Separation

Self-check out. Curbside pickup. We are social beings living in a world where isolation is on the rise thanks to technology. What does that mean for our mental health?

We see in the colleges now this exacerbation of separation. This paradox of connection, if you will. I'm on the frontlines of the colleges,  so I see it up close. But [I see] a rise of loneliness and anxiety and depression. We’re meant to be together; we're wired to be social beings. And yet, more and more, we’re isolated. 

I just came back from Europe and I was noticing more and more things being automated. Check-out, which we've seen some of that already. Check-in at airports. Touchless payments. So, more and more you're not interacting with a human being. Ordering your food, paying for your food. They just drop it off and run. Less interaction with a waiter, for example. So, we're setting up a society where we’re increasingly distancing ourselves. I think we need to consciously.

It's kind of like a pendulum swing. And it's swinging way out there – in the digital and in the automation. We need to bring in the “human” and balance that I think. I'm not trying to be Amish, like let’s throw our devices out, but I think that we do need to bring some balance back and understand that we’re embodied, we live an embodied life. The body is being written out of the picture in a lot of these instances, and people are reacting to that. We might not even know why. Something's missing, something’s off, and they might not be able to put a name to it. We're going to see an acceleration of that with more automation coming into the system.

Depression & Technology: How They Connect

How are we so connected using digital technology, but still feeling isolated? Social media helps perpetuate a warped reality of what life is, leading to anxiety and depression, especially in younger generations.

Part of the impetus for writing my book was I saw, you can call, a mental health crisis happening in the colleges. And this wasn't just at my university. This is going on across the country where we have the highest rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness for example, that we have seen in thirty years. That’s what’s so interesting. We’re more connected than ever before. We’re also more distant than ever before. Half of Americans are not in any kind of romantic relationship. A quarter of Millennials say they have no close friends. So, it's just so ironic that we supposedly are so connected and interconnected, and yet people are feeling disconnected. It's driving these things.

Also, comparing your life – a young person coming up and maybe they don't have a real sense of self developed yet and sense of self-esteem are still developing that – and comparing their life highlight reel of someone else's life. The high moments of life where their faces and bodies are tuned and Photoshopped to perfection. I call it the virtual-mirror effect. It's like a funhouse mirror. It's not reflecting back an actual reality, but a warped reality. Young people are comparing themselves to that warped reality and coming up short. You're always going to come up short. The people themselves don't look like that. It’s just a very thin slice of their lives,  you know like I said, the highlight reel. So, it's driving some mental health problems that I would like to see us pay attention to and really understand a little bit better.

Apps: Today’s Purveyor of Random Reinforcement

Apps today are built in with measures to keep you coming back for more, like text messages that notify you when someone responds and social media feeds that have continuous scrolls, showing post after post. Dr. Julie Albright discusses this form of what psychologists call random reinforcement.

When we first started going into this digital era, we had our computer plugged into the wall and when you were done with it you walked away. It didn't go with you. But, as we moved into the mobile era, our apps now have behavioral drivers baked into them that keep you coming back for more. For example, we know that gambling can be addictive and we have the slot machines where you pull the lever and the things turn and, “Ding, ding, ding.” Maybe nothing happens. You pull it again, nothing happens. You pull it a third time, the lights are flashing and money's falling  out, or there's a counter adding up money. Nine times out of ten, people don’t go, “Let me take the money and walk out.” They go, “Maybe I can win again.” They just keep pulling and pulling and they throw all their money back into the machine. So psychologists call this random reinforcement. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't win. And what we know is if you win all the time you can get bored of it. If you never win, you give up because you can't win. But if you randomly reinforce – sometimes you win, sometimes you don't – that's the most powerful behavioral driver that we know. So, think about things like Tinder. You're swiping, swiping, and they swipe you. It’s gamified. It’s built-in random reinforcement. 

Instagram – there's a feed scrolling and scrolling itself. Sometimes stuff is boring like, “Oh, I’ve seen that.” Or sometimes, “Oh that's funny. That's interesting.”  It's that same exact kind of behavioral driver we see in the slot machines. We know that's addictive, and it’s built into the apps now. Random enforcement keeps you coming back for more. So, that's what's going on. That's why it's so hard. Even the “ding” of a text message. Have you ever seen that “ding” and then everybody looks at their phone to see if it's theirs? We’ve all seen that, right. “Oh, that wasn’t mine.” But you hope it was Because it gives a little shot of dopamine in the brain and that feel-good moment and all those things are meant to trigger us to keep coming back for more. Tik Tok has figured that out. The scroll is automatic – you go from one to the next to the next and next thing you know it's 3:00 in the morning.

Creating a Risk + Opportunity Framework

With the shift in values comes the need for a new risk and opportunity framework. Here’s why.

I'm putting together a new framework to think about risk and opportunity. We've always thought about it – in the digital infrastructure industry anyway – resiliency, redundancy, and things like that. But, I think that both customers and the workforce are thinking differently. We talked about the value shifting amongst digital natives for example. So I'm going to build in some new pillars to have a systems approach to risk and opportunity. Thinking about things like sustainability. Thinking about things like ethics and diversity built in. Thinking about things like self reliance – what do we do when it all comes tumbling down. Do we need to have some food stocked up? Do we need a plan B for communicating with Mom or Grandma? A lot of particularly younger people live in a just-in-time world and we've seen that with our supply chains during COVID. That just-in-time world suddenly started to fray. People are talking about bringing manufacturing onshore again to deal with that.

So bringing together all those aspects under a risk and opportunity framework, that's what I'm trying to work out now. So we can think about that in a new sort of way, a more holistic way that takes into account not just technology but the environment and the people as well.

Unplugging & Looking Away

When do you know it’s time to unplug? Our brains need to rest from the constant attention digital technology requires.

There's a whole user-experience field that's grown up, and even more so connecting people to see what your brain reaction is, where your eyes are looking. There’s a whole science behind that that consultants are out there making it more and more difficult to look away. We need to look away sometimes and we need to look at each other. We need to look at nature. Be away from our devices sometime just to not have that constant focus on your brain. Think about your brain being on overdrive 24 hours a day. It would be like driving a car. At some point you’re just going to run out of steam. So, we need the same thing with our brain. We need to pull away and let our brains rest and that's where you get good ideas because you're allowing everything to sort of stew. You have what’s called diffuse attention; you’re looking around. You're not focused. [You’re] attention is on an app. We need that for our brain. For mental health. For calmness. And, fewer and fewer people are doing that kind of thing.

Expert insights

We’ve quickly pulled away from the anchoring structures in society, but we haven't really built the new ones yet to take their place. So we're in this kind of liminal period where we’re neither here nor there.

Dr. Julie Albright

Digital Sociologist


How has the traditional path of adulthood changed?

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As the classic family structure shifts away from the nuclear model, many of the previously held benefits of community evolved drastically. Over the years, connectivity via technology has opened up new possibilities and removed pre-existing barriers for things like travel, remote working, and long-distance relationships.

The result is an entire generation of young adults who see traditional aspects of community as optional and, in some cases, obsolete. Marriage, religion, careers, relationships, entertainment — these norms are shifting right beneath our feet. With fewer physical, location-based roots in a traditional community, “becoming an adult” no longer looks like it once did. As a human race, we’re getting married and having children later. We’re buying fewer houses. We’re creating less permanence. We’re constantly re-evaluating what it means to work, live, and play wherever we want.


How is the digital world affecting our mental health?

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There is a mental health crisis  sweeping across the country right now. In fact, we’re seeing some of the highest rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness that we’ve observed in more than 30 years. As we become more connected through things like social media, AI and automation, people are growing increasingly distant physically from one another.

A reported 50% of Americans aren’t in any relationship, and about 25% of millennials say they don’t have any friends. As more and more human-centric industries shift into automation — dining, transportation, retail — we’re seeing increased isolation, which leads to depression.


How does technology impact children?

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The neuroplasticity, or malleability, of the adolescent brain is shaped based on inputs to our neural pathways. The highly interactive, stimulating technology built into children’s digital devices will have an impact on brain development. In fact, many infants are accessing tablets and smartphones before they even learn language skills, resulting in a brain that is wired differently than previous generations.

Young adults entering the workforce are seeing cross-age miscommunications with managers, especially in the form of giving and receiving non-verbal cues. Most grew up using emojis and text — prosthetic emotions — to communicate with their friends, making face-to-face conversations confusing and difficult.


Why are mobile applications so addictive?

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At the dawn of the digital era, computers had to be plugged into the wall, which kept the addictive nature of technology in check. In the mobile era, however, consumers carry around devices with applications that have powerful behavioral drivers baked into their code. Similar to a gambling addiction, mobile apps tap into what’s called random reinforcement.

If users “win” all the time, they’ll get bored. If they “lose” too often, they’ll give up. But when stimulation is doled out randomly, it becomes the most powerful behavioral driver we know. Many of the popular mobile apps are gamified, using advanced algorithms to systematically deliver stimulating content at unexpected times in order to reward users for staying on the platform. This releases dopamine in our brains, triggering us to keep coming back for more.

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