We’ve long been concerned with the loneliness crisis here on the Epicurus Blog. Loneliness is becoming more of a problem, and not just amongst the elderly. Despite the rise of social media (or perhaps because of it), we have fewer friends, and we aren’t as close to them. Ties between neighbours aren’t as strong as they once were. We often live far from our hometowns and families, to go to university or get a better paid job. Traditional social institutions like churches, trade unions, working men’s clubs and political parties have declined. This has resulted in a whole host of problems, such as drug abuse, alcoholism, increased rates of depression and other mental illnesses, and in extreme cases, suicide. More information can be found here: http://epicurus.today/the-age-of-loneliness-by-hgeorge-monbiot/.
However, it would be a mistake to view increasing rates of loneliness as an inevitable part of the modern world. I think there are many things that can be done to reduce it, without sacrificing economic growth or the freedom to migrate. It is not globalisation or capitalism per se that is causing loneliness, but the way our society has handled it.
Firstly, we need a rethink of what retirement should look like. Many people retire, only to find that they lose contact with their friends from work, and no longer have a strong social group. Instead of insisting people retire suddenly at a given age, why not make it more common to work part time or flexible hours during your late fifties and early sixties. That way, instead of being pushed into a sudden change of lifestyle, people would have the chance to build social ties outside of work while continuing their friendships with colleagues. Retirees should also aim to live as close to their families as possible, so they can help their children and see their grandchildren. There should be more voluntary activities and societies for retirees.
A significant contributor to loneliness, at least in the USA and the UK, is excessively long working hours. No employment contract should mandate working more than 40 hours a week, nor should it ever be compulsory to work Sundays, with the exception of the armed forces and emergency services. This wouldn’t have the impact on economic growth that may be assumed; Germany’s economy is very productive, and they work the fewest hours in Europe. This should be accompanied by a culture change towards a continental European-style aversion to shopping on Sundays. It may be a bit inconvenient, but we would all be better off. Spending time with friends and family is more important than the right to shop whenever you want.
There also need to be more activities for young people. Traditional centres of entertainment like nightclubs, pubs and live music venues have declined, sometimes precipitously, to the detriment of our economy and social fabric. The government should do more to promote the nighttime economy, by reducing business rates and taxes on alcohol bought at establishments- offset by higher taxes on supermarket alcohol. Restrictive licensing laws should be relaxed. There also need to be more activities for young people who don’t like alcohol or sport. Universities fill this gap quite well with societies, but those who don’t go to university are often left in a social and cultural vacuum. Making transport affordable for young people is also crucial in an era where we live increasingly further apart.
It’s worth noting how common loneliness is amongst young families. It’s very common for people to have children, only to find that their children take up so much of their time, their friendships suffer considerably. This may be one of the hardest instances of loneliness to solve, since children have to be looked after, and childcare is very expensive. Virtually all social groups for people with young children are geared exclusively towards women. So its going to be very difficult to improve social ties between young families as long as men are expected to be the breadwinners, while women do the bulk of raising children. I’m all in favour of a Nordic-style system of ultra-flexible maternity and paternity leave. But ultimately, our culture has to change, something which isn’t likely as long as our aversion to stay at home dads remains.
In this post, I’ve tried to be optimistic in my conception of a society that isn’t as atomised and individualistic as our own. And while I certainly believe we can do far more to address loneliness, the long term trends are only getting worse. Amongst ambitious young people at the top universities, there is a prioritisation of career success and being culturally globalised above maintaining good contact with existing friends. As a young man in Britain, I’ve lost a lot of friends due to people moving away and wanting a radically different life. For young people who don’t go to university, there is a lack of investment (both public and private) in activities for them. Getting a job and a relationship is seen as more important than making friends. An increasing awareness of mental health issues is encouraging. But British and American culture is incredibly materialistic and society incredibly divided. I believe the loneliness crisis is going to get a lot more severe.