Tackling the loneliness epidemic

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

Dave Clements

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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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.


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.

david rawson

23rd January 2020 at 12:15 pm

|I’ve never been so lonely as when in a dysfunctional relationship

Linda Payne

23rd January 2020 at 10:16 am

My main persuits are reading and writing, clearly things one does alone and I like the company of older people as it is mainly us that go to book groups and poetry groups. It is possible to feel lonely in a crowd and if you suffer depression you dont even want to interact. I agree that there is less interaction due to PC; people are just so scared of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, that is the insidious aspect of the whole subject

Warren Alexander

23rd January 2020 at 10:06 am

People feel lonely. Quick, let’s declare a national emergency and spend millions on dealing with a perfectly normal human emotion as though it is a deadly disease. Which it is not.

Stephen J

23rd January 2020 at 8:33 am

I reckon that the more society tells people that they are independent and that the world is their oyster, or that the globalist agenda is a good thing, and makes the world a bigger place, also known as a society of “anywheres”, sounds modern but flies directly into the face of our human characteristics.

Biologically, we are somewhere’s and the generations traditionally lean on each other in order to get by.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century with the introduction of state sponsored welfare, also known as the old age pension, our masters have been telling us that the state provides us with welfare and isn’t that great, but it doesn’t point out that there is a loss of liberty involved in this.

Anyway by way of compensation for the withdrawal of the real human rights of intergenerational dependence, they put their hands in our pockets, steal our effort, take a cut and then claim to be good folks for redistributing the rest (at great expense), and the group that are now fully educated anywheres and yet to experience life’s hard edges, just accept this as a balanced education. They know no different. They have been indoctrinated with a state version of history rather than been taught how to think for themselves, one that erroneously eschews the nation state as a cause of war, rather than kerb on it.

The authorities then doubled down on this with the Attlee government. Systematically, they have tried to replace love with other people’s money.

Brexit is the first adjustment, and we need much more government by the people than of the people.

I do not accept that the new government is particularly good at any of the above, but with a bit of luck, it might point to the idea that divide and rule might sound good if you want to overpower people and control them, but if you want their enthusiasm, you have to go about community building and the interrelationships that are involved. In other words, though it still has the taint of May, Barnier and Robbins types, a year or so down the line and the need to stay tied to the EU wonks is likely to have subsided a bit.

On balance, the concept of a democratic nation state, is the happy medium between the globalist concept and the familial idea that the generational connections are vital to human progress.

When industrial production becomes less prominent due to robotisation and other automation, the concept of globalism as a productivity tool recedes into the background and once again, caring for each other emerges, and again that is best managed at a local level, through the intelligent use of democracy (direct and binding of course).

As Trump said the other day, the abandonment of ordinary Americans by the American politicians as they sat idly by and watched all the widgetty jobs move away to China and deprive ordinary folk of any opportunity other than to claim, was what encouraged him to run for the job.

He realised that it was a process that was accelerating and there seemed to be no good human reason for it. Particularly since as a very wealthy man himself, he doesn’t use the Chinese workforce to increase that wealth, it all stays in his America, why can’t his fellow American businessmen take the same path for the sake of the family?

It isn’t the profit that is the dirty word it is the cynical transfer of capital across borders for the solitary reason of extortion of the poor native worker that is inhuman, and the lefty loves it.

Ven Oods

23rd January 2020 at 8:04 am

It’s not the mental health aspect of our NHS that scares me most: it’s the proliferation of ‘health professionals’ who are clinically obese. What price being taken care of when they can’t look after themselves?
Your ‘geniality police’ bit got me thinking, though. I imagined being stuck in a ‘care home’ and being forced by a well-meaning person to put down an interesting book so that I could join the others for a stimulating game of bingo.

Ven Oods

23rd January 2020 at 8:05 am

Should have been a reply to K Tojo’s post.

K Tojo

23rd January 2020 at 12:56 am

Oh God! Another area of personal freedom for the psychobabble brigade to colonise and insist they have expert knowledge of.

Of course they must include that old “matronising” favourite:
“In this, like, patriarchal society of ours men are, like, alienated because they are unable to show their, like, vulnerable side”.

To add to the pesky thought police will we now have to put up with a “geniality police”? Any man deemed insufficiently gregarious will be pressured into joining a remedial program lest he become a burden on the mental health division of “Our NHS”.

Claire D

23rd January 2020 at 9:11 am

I agree with you K ToJo and I’m a bit peeved that the loneliness of men is written about sympathetically while the only lonely woman considered is an ex-criminal paedophile.

I think loneliness is pretty universal across both sexes for a number of different reasons but especially living longer, city life, family breakdown and a lack of community. There are some great initiatives going on but more needs to be done.

Claire D

23rd January 2020 at 9:13 am

I don’t mean I resent men’s loneliness being written about sympathetically, just that women seem to have been left out a bit.

Mark Williams

23rd January 2020 at 11:18 pm

This is unfortunately an all-to-common comment from women. Men’s issues are rarely talked about in society, and, when they are, it’s typically through a feminist lens (e.g., there is something wrong with men [toxic], “patriarchy” [doesn’t exit] is bad for men).

When men’s issues are discussed, many women — particularly the leftwing media/feminist class –somehow manage to make it about women (as you did).

This is why many men won’t open up, won’t talk about their feelings, because it’s clear women (on average) aren’t willing to listen. This is also why I attend a men’s group.

Claire D

24th January 2020 at 6:42 am

@ Mark Williams

I am not a feminist.
This article is NOT about ” men’s issues “, it is about the ‘ Loneliness epidemic ‘, which as I have pointed out in my comment is UNIVERSAL, not about women.

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