Run clubs, book readings and salsa: the gatherings pulling gen Z off their screens

<span>The Coogee Run Club meets five times a week to run a variety of routes in Sydney’s east.</span><span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
The Coogee Run Club meets five times a week to run a variety of routes in Sydney’s east.Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Tara Meakins didn’t know anyone when she moved to Sydney. But after connecting with a local mum interested in running on a community Facebook page, it wasn’t long before she found her tribe, and Coogee Run Club was born.

“The first run we had, one other person showed up on a Tuesday evening,” says Meakins, 35, who co-founded the club two years ago.

“We started out with two runs a week,” she says, “and slowly over the first few months it was getting, you know, from the one runner to 10, to 20.”

Within a year, the group reached 40 members. Then, one night in January last year, 120 people ran, tripling the group’s size. Earlier this year, they hit a record with 255 runners.

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Social clubs for running, reading, hiking, crafting and volunteering seem to be popping up everywhere, with young people encouraged to put down their phones and socialise in-person.

Often free, these groups are offering fresh ways to make new friends and socialise without breaking the bank in a cost-of-living crisis.

‘It’s never just been about the running’

Run clubs in particular have seen a significant boom the past year, as a way to stay fit, meet friends and sometimes even find a potential partner.

“We like to say that we’re a social club with a bit of running on the side, because for us, it’s never just been about the running,” says Meakins.

The club, which has members ranging in age from 17 to 70, meets five times a week to run a variety of routes in Sydney’s east. A 5km run on Tuesday evening is most popular, often drawing more than 100 people. Runners on Thursday morning’s 5km are rewarded with a sunrise and post-run swim, while joggers on “newbies night” go for drinks at the local pub after.

With its “rain, hail, shine or hangover policy”, they have never cancelled a run.

For the last 14 years, Meakins has regularly gone to the gym,but she says it can be hard to make friends there, as people are often head down and engrossed in their phones as they work out.

But at run club, there’s little room for screen time.

“On a run, you’ve got to be running,” Meakins says. “You can’t text and you can’t scroll when you’re on a run … it’s the blood pumping around your body, it’s the endorphins that are filling your mind.”

Others like 26-year-old Skye Cusack have sought out more relaxing ways to connect. When Cusack, a self-described introvert, moved with a friend to Melbourne from Tasmania at the end of 2022, they knew no one.

Then, on social media, Cusack found a club called the Silent Book Club that meets once a month. People bring their own books; some choose to sit and read silently, others take the chance to discuss what they’re reading.

“We really wanted to make some friends and some connections, but we are both introverted,” Cusack says.

Cusack says she and her friend were nervous walking into a room of strangers at their first club night in February 2023, but everyone was warm and welcoming. She’s been a regular since, and has become close friends with a number of members.

“That’s the appeal of a book club, you have a common ground where you know you both have this shared interest you can talk about,” she says.

More than a year on, she now sees it as an important break in her busy schedule.

“I work a lot, like seven days a week, so having that regular time every month that I know for sure I’m going to meet new people and connect with the core people that go all the time is really nice,” she says.

After growing up with social media, and being forced to attend school from home during the pandemic, it’s no wonder some young people are keen to spend less time on their devices and connect offline in their local neighbourhoods.

Connecting offline

According to a McCrindle report on the future of education in Australia, almost three in five (58%) students see navigating loneliness and isolation as extremely or very challenging.

The 2021 report, which surveyed about 1,200 Australian students aged 16 to 24, also found 82% of them struggle with spending too much time on technology.

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While 74% said they want to go off social media, and 65% agree it is having a negative impact on their mental health, young people were hesitant to leave because of fears they may miss out on events, trends and what their friends are up to.

According to the report, that group’s “relational world and sense of connection has been built through the online medium more than any generation before”. Separate McCrindle research found just 32% of generation Z, people born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, turn to their local community for meaningful and regular community, compared with 47% of baby boomers.

But the tide may be turning , and gen Z appear to want to change this.

A 2019-20 study found that half of Australians have ditched social media at some point – with gen Z more likely to disconnect than millennials. Sociology professor Roger Patulny says that gen Z were the first generation to grow up “always having internet”, whereas for millennials, it was more of a novelty.

It seems to be not so much about the activity, but about just trying to connect with other people

Penelope Jordan

“I think they’re more savvy with social media, gen Z, because they’ve grown up with it,” he says. “And as a consequence they’re more willing to drop out of … certain platforms, if not social media altogether, and be more discerning about it.”

Patulny says the impact of the pandemic and online schooling taught gen Z the danger of loneliness – but it would be wrong to say that social media use automatically causes this.

He says passive social media use – where people just consume, lurk or “doom-scroll” – can lead to social isolation, compared with active use – using it for talking with others and organising offline events.

“The more any given platform encourages excessive passive consumption, whether its the consumption of ideology or fashion or entertainment … then savvy gen Z’s will get sick of it and drop off,” he says.

Curing post-pandemic loneliness

This is exactly what the founder of the First Timer’s Club, Penelope Jordan, has found.

Since beginning the Melbourne-based club a few years ago, and watching it take off recently thanks to Instagram, the 29-year-old has noticed her peers are approaching social media differently.

“A lot of people aren’t really using it to show what they’re doing in their lives as much, but they’re using it to try and find ways to connect,” she says. “[It’s nice] to be using it to kind of enhance life physically, rather than using it just for the basis of social media alone.”

The club meets regularly to try new activities together, whether it’s salsa dancing, bouldering, yoga or tai chi. But it’s not so much about the activities, Jordan says, it’s the chance to meet new people.

People got disconnected from colleagues, uni mates and school friends during the pandemic, Jordan says, and they are clearly feeling that loss.

“People are now having to actively go and seek that,” she says. “[Whether it’s run clubs], book clubs, craft clubs, there’s so many different ones … It seems to be not so much about the activity, but about just trying to connect with other people.”

Meakins agrees. With almost 2,000 members and more than 10,000 followers on Instagram, she says the Coogee Run Club has fostered deep friendships and genuine connections.

“[Club] people spend Christmas together. We all spent New Year’s Eve together … I went away with people for Easter. It’s not just a fleeting acquaintance … these are real friendships, real people who are going to go the distance.”