Tackling the loneliness epidemic

We need to overcome our fear of offending or being harmed by others.

Dave Clements

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Topics Politics UK

Loneliness, insofar as it is regarded as a social problem, has typically been understood as something that increasingly affects older people. Indeed, Age UK estimates that in England alone, there are around 1.4million lonely older people. As Frank Furedi has written on spiked, there is a disturbing ‘generational ghettoisation’ in the UK that impacts both on the lives of the aged and others.

But now, young people are staking their claim to being lonely, too. In a survey conducted for Bupa Care Homes, a third of all adults interviewed said they felt lonely at Christmas. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness claims that nine million of us are always or often lonely.

Little wonder loneliness today is said to be of ‘epidemic’ proportions. Its impact on our health is alleged to be comparable with smoking or obesity. And it is implicated in anything from anxiety, depression and heart attacks to strokes, suicide and dementia. Loneliness, we are told, is a killer.

However, there is little consensus on what loneliness is or what causes it. Such has been the lack of clarity that an international team of researchers published a letter in the Lancet this month calling for a ‘unified approach to loneliness’. It seems we do need to better understand why so many people, from all walks of life, are feeling lonely.

In some cases, the reasons are obvious. Take the case of convicted paedophile and former nursery worker Vanessa George, who, according to the Sun, is being provided with ‘fake friends’ following her release from prison. They will be there for her to call on 24 hours a day, or to ‘just go for a coffee with if she’s feeling low’. While few will have much sympathy for the vile George, it is at least understandable why she might not have many friends.

But what of the case of Mark Gaisford? Despite a high-flying career as a recruitment CEO, Gaisford says, in a much viewed video, that he has no friends. He says he knows lots of people through networking, but he doesn’t ‘do stuff with them that friends do’. He concludes that there are a lot of men out there like him. Men, who are, as he puts it, too busy ‘being manly’ to make any friends.

Perhaps, surprisingly, one of the more insightful commentators on our loneliness problem is Matt Goss. Formerly of Bros, the late 1980s pop band, he has been supporting ITV show Good Morning Britain’s 1 Million Minutes loneliness campaign. And he does a much better job than most at identifying what is really causing today’s so-called loneliness epidemic.

‘We need interaction’, he says, but ‘everyone is terrified of each other at the moment’. Political correctness has made social interaction more difficult, he says. ‘We wonder why so many people are lonely but we are becoming detached from each other.’

But, like Gaisford, Goss also blames loneliness on what he regards as unhealthy traditional notions of masculinity. He even credits After the Screaming Stops, the film he and his brother made about life after fame, with showing that it is okay for blokes to ‘let out a tear or 20’.

Most of us have felt lonely at some point in our lives, and it can obviously be upsetting. But today’s assaults on masculinity, and the relentless medicalisation of loneliness, aren’t going to make anybody any friends – least of all with those who would rather find ways to meet people than have a cry or be lectured to about prevailing gender norms.

Nevertheless Goss, almost instinctively, understands something that researchers and campaigners don’t. We do live in a society characterised by ever greater individuation and a weakening of social bonds. And this is compounded, as Goss suggests, by generational divisions and cultural anxieties about the way we relate to each other. Whether it is watching one’s pronouns or obsessing over alleged microaggressions, engaging with others has never felt more fraught and risky. It is only by questioning the claims and codes which keep us apart, and appealing to a shared sense of community, that the isolation many of us feel will be addressed.

Dave Clements is a writer and policy consultant working in local government. He also chairs the Academy of Ideas Social Policy Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @daveclementsltd

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Comments

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

23rd January 2020 at 7:42 pm

HS2 will solve all problems.

reality lite

23rd January 2020 at 6:40 pm

The tossers are always amongst us. If you haven’t any friends, odds on you wouldn’t make a good friend. Don’t whine Own the reason & change.

S A

23rd January 2020 at 6:30 pm

I don’t believe this article has been thought through properly. Loneliness, especially among senior citizens is likely a symptom of a great many problems in our society, and related to but very different from loneliness in younger generations. Here’s some observations and thoughts off the top of my head. Loneliness is a symptom of:

Cultural problems
The UK is youth obsessed, the older we get, the more irrelevant we become. We don’t value our older people very much. We’re widely dispersed, moving far away from family. We live in generational ghettos, young here, middle aged there and old over there (more so in London). We’re not very friendly in the UK – we rarely have conversations with strangers (generalising). We don’t mix generationally any more (except maybe the religious or football fans). We’re too busy and impatient to include older people in our plans. We don’t respect their experience. The young are arrogant and dismiss older folk’s knowledge because they’re not hyperbolic, current or PC.

The old do it to themselves
Divorce and death isolate people. I’ve observed older people in the UK keep very small friendship groups. They seem to choose not make more friends or find it hard to. The old idea of retirement e.g. clocking off after 40 years, getting a gold watch, putting your feet up and turning on the telly seems to be a way to quickly slip into isolation and poor health. A certain generation of Brit probably weren’t very sporty. They may have watched football or cricket and had the odd kickabout but on the whole, fitness wasn’t on the agenda in the 60s and 70s and so older people haven’t kept themselves in good shape. Not to mention diet… that 50s, 60s and 70s eating has persisted. My father still eats like its the war…

Our society isn’t set up for old people
I rarely see older folk out on the streets outside of the core of the day… they’re often not at the movies, they’re not out to dinner, they’re not dancing or strolling in the evening. The events that are geared towards older folk are naff community hall affairs etc.

Our environment doesn’t help
British cities and suburbs aren’t the prettiest or the friendliest (unless you live in a few choice cities… Bath, Cambridge, Edinburgh etc) — they’re pretty ugly on the whole. Heavy traffic, loud, busy, no communal space outside of a few parks etc. And let’s not forget the weather’s impact. Outside of a few nice summer months, it’s probably a lot harder for old people to be outside and so they don’t get out as much.

Having observed people across the world, I’d say this is a decent starter for 10 on some of our problems contributing to the loneliness problem.

In Negative

23rd January 2020 at 3:53 pm

Reckon I might have a better time hanging out with a paedo than a recruitment CEO…

There is a great deal of truth in that joke and there is a lot contained in it on just what’s wrong with our culture. The paedo is at least real and suffers for their reality; the recruiter is utterly artificial and suffers from their artificiality. That they buy into this idea of lonely men ‘playing at being men’ is perfectly in keeping with their broader artificiality – that fakery necessitated by their roles. So, for instance:

“today’s assaults on masculinity, and the relentless medicalisation of loneliness, aren’t going to make anybody any friends – least of all with those who would rather find ways to meet people than have a cry or be lectured to about prevailing gender norms. ”

this is the process of artificialisation. The medicalisation of loneliness is in itself an artificialisation of suffering. The lecturing about gender is the artificialisation of gender. These things are being derealised to the extent that there is no ‘real’ way to each other – the only roads of contact are artificial, conceptual, professional. Mental health is in a sense ‘the professionalism of being human’, managed over by ‘experts’ in what it is to be social and human.

Your paedo reclaims being human and reality by living at its extreme end. They make a real contact – with their victim and with society more broadly. The rest of us, we just professionalise everything, artificialise everything, and we call this progress. Through our normativity we are abolishing real contact; we are even becoming incapable of real contact because it is too risky, too violenct, too painful, too brutalising. Loneliness is the result. Impossible exchange. I’ll leave the final word to Patrick Bateman:

“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable. I simply am not there. “

Simon C

23rd January 2020 at 12:35 pm

Talking is overrated. My closest friends have always been the ones I never felt the need to talk to. We can sit in silence and enjoy just being together.

Loneliness is an emotion. It’s not necessarily about how many friends you’ve got but how connected you feel towards people.

Simon C

23rd January 2020 at 12:49 pm

ps The focus on men’s mental health and male suicide is great but stop telling men – particularly ill men – to talk more. There are a thousand ways to communicate. Mental health services just need to find more flexible ways to communicate with men and stop blaming some stereotype of masculinity. It’s really not that difficult.

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