Published on 26 Mar 2024

Are face-to-face struggles of youth just a mindset issue?


Online networking is fine. But life and career opportunities often depend on one's ability to engage with people in the real world.

In an age where we are more connected than ever before through new technologies, younger generations are finding it more challenging to connect and network in person.

Young adults in Singapore are more likely than the older generations to experience loneliness, including social anxiety and isolation, according to a recent poll by the Institute of Policy Studies.

Specifically, more than five out of 10 respondents aged 21 to 35 report social anxiety and find it easier to talk to people online than offline, compared with three out of 10 older people.

To be sure, these patterns are hardly surprising. Loneliness is on the rise in other countries, not just in Singapore. Social isolation and loneliness are increasingly being recognised as a "priority public health problem and policy issue", according to the World Health Organisation.

The current patterns raise concerns on several levels, not just for the mental well-being of individuals. How will these attitudes towards face-to-face interaction affect young people's career prospects and life opportunities?

As decades of research has shown, so much depends on who you know – for finding new ideas, opportunities and supporters – even as workplaces become more disconnected due to remote work or work-from-home initiatives.

The Society for Human Resource Management found that 67 per cent of supervisors overseeing remote workers believe they are more replaceable than on-site workers, and 42 per cent of them admitted to occasionally forgetting to assign tasks to remote workers.

Over time, reduced visibility in the office can jeopardise people's chances of promotion as well as job satisfaction in general.

We have been working with a team of researchers to understand why so many people find the idea of networking in person challenging, and what can be done.

Anyone can learn to network

It is tempting to blame the proliferation of digital technologies – for everyday shopping, making friends, and even finding life partners – for young people's growing anxiety in face-to-face interactions.

However, longstanding research on personality traits shows that, in every generation, social anxiety tends to decrease with age, suggesting that many people become more comfortable with social situations as they develop more mature social skills.

In the same vein, a new insight from our research is that many people struggle with networking because of the mindsets they have about what it takes to be a good networker or to build relationships with different types of people.

Mindsets refer to beliefs or assumptions people have about the "nature versus nurture" of various human attributes, such as intelligence or ability in different domains.

We find that people with fixed mindsets about networking believe that networking well is dependent on personality traits, like being charming, charismatic, or simply extroverted and sociable.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that they can change outcomes through more effort. In other words, networking is a skill honed through effort.

Crucially, people with fixed mindsets are more likely to feel that networking is fake, useless, and even unfair. To them, there is no point in trying if some people are better at networking simply because they were born that way – naturally funny, charming and outgoing.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset are less likely to dismiss networking as such, believing that anyone can make an effort to reach out, stay in touch, and get to know one another gradually. For them, networking is not unlike exercising. It is not always easy, but anyone can do it – and even learn to enjoy it.

What is particularly promising about the idea of mindsets is that anyone – young or old – can learn to cultivate a growth mindset. It may seem like a tall order for many of us to somehow become more magnetic on demand, but any of us can change our mindset and learn to appreciate learning about one another.

By changing our mindset, we can learn to find meaning and joy in reaching out to people who support and inspire us.

A sense of purpose.

Even as we encourage networking in the real world, it should not lead to stigmatising individuals who are uncomfortable doing so, as they may be experiencing issues related to loneliness, such as social anxiety.

A recent large study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that an important predictor of loneliness is a lack of purpose that helps define our identities and connects us to others who share common values and visions.

If you find communicating and expanding your social circle challenging, it's important to first make an effort to understand yourself better – what you need, what you can offer, and what inspires you – before connecting more deeply with others to share your values and purpose in life.

In other words, cultivating a sense of belonging starts with introspection and self-discovery. This can help lead people to better connections rather than simply reaching out to anyone anywhere.

A growth mindset coupled with finding a sense of purpose can empower young people to thrive in an increasingly disjointed world with more confidence.

Ko Kuwabara is associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead. Zou Xi is associate professor of leadership, management and organisation at Nanyang Business School.