This is primarily about a UK problem, and I honestly don’t know how much US society suffers from it, but I suspect at least some of it holds true in many areas there too.
I’m fortunate that it doesn’t affect me directly, since my wife is all the company I need to be happy, but loneliness is arguably the biggest problem in modern UK society, certainly one of the biggest. Young people feel lonely, old people feel lonely, new mothers feel lonely, students feel lonely. Many others too. It affects a lot of people.
The British Red Cross in conjunction with The Co-op today released a new report on it saying chronic loneliness is becoming a public health issue: https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/health-and-care/opinion/british-red-cross/81457/chronic-loneliness-has-become-public-health
http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Health-and-social-care/Independent-living/Loneliness-and-isolation/Research saying 9 million people in the UK are always or often lonely
Older people are the most obvious group affected.
Some reports say loneliness increases chance of death by 25%: http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/
Another recent report from Age UK already includes some alarming figures for older people. Taking just two examples (read it for far more) 1 in 8 over-65s chronically lonely, and nearly 1 in 14 having no close friends at all: www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/Factsheets/Later_Life_UK_factsheet.pdf
Although older people are the main problem group for loneliness, it can affect anyone, with a few other highlight groups. Each year, 1 in 4000 men between 45-59 commit suicide, 5 times as high as the average rate for female suicide.
New mothers can often feel lonely. The good news (according to netmums) is that thanks to smartphone use, the number is down from 60% a decade ago to 28% today, but that still means more than a quarter of new mums feel lonely even today. I’d also note that between 2006 and today, the netmums user base has changed a great deal, so much of that drop may well be attributable to the high proportion of new mums drawn from immigrant communities, which often have different social support characteristics than the rest of the population, so the figures might not be quite so bright for non-immigrant mums.
Students too experience moving away from an established family and friends support base to a totally new environment where often they might not know anyone at first. Not everyone is expert at making new friends quickly, so many students feel lonely too. Student suicides are at an all time high as students are ‘fraught with loneliness and anxiety’ according to Professor Siobhan O’Neill:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/not-just-a-problem-for-old-people-why-the-young-are-lonely-too/ discusses ‘the 7 ages on loneliness
The sick, the newly divorced, unhappy singles and recent retirees are other groups particularly vulnerable to loneliness. But enough figures and reports, with so much recent press and public discussion about it, we can’t claim that it is a new or unknown problem, but in spite of a few positives such as from netmums, we can be sure it still remains a huge and persistent problem. The organisations named above are doing their bit to help, as are many others, and still it persists.
It would be lovely to believe that improving social networking will solve it all, but it clearly hasn’t even though we could reasonably say that people are mostly familiar with it, mostly know how to use it and it is pretty mature now. As I mentioned, even the netmums good news could in part be the result of changing demographics rather than the problem actually being solved. Only in part though, as I do believe the net does have a positive impact and does let people find new friends and chat to others even when they can’t get out. It must have some benefit, but the figures still say that its impact is at best only a reduction rather than elimination.
There are other net trends that might make it worse though. One is the increasing division we have in society, and another is the increasing censorship under threat of social and economic exclusion if people say something politically incorrect. This is creating barriers between people, not drawing them together, as I wrote in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/increasing-censorship-will-lead-to-increasing-loneliness/. Social networking brings people into more frequent contact with strangers, but the separation and anonymity often involved in that also brings out the worst in some people, and social media have become ideological battlegrounds that so often quickly polarise into group-think camps, increasing isolation rather than reducing it.
More evidence that the net doesn’t solve everything is that the Kindr app that was aimed specifically at helping people to be nice to each other seems to have disappeared or at least become inert after a short life, whereas I had hoped it might bring a part solution to helping people who rarely get affection or praise from others: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/compliments/
Networking clearly helps some people some of the time, but not for everyone all of the time, and in some cases makes things worse.
Automation of shopping and increased competition from the net forces lower prices but sometimes at the expense of human interaction, and for some people, a brief exchange with a checkout assistant is the only contact they get. If we see more automation of shops with more self service tills, that will directly increase loneliness.
The solution is clearly to restore at least some of the real face to face social contact that has become depleted for many in our modern society. Face to face meeting is emotionally more valuable than net contact, and though nets can put people in touch with others or let them know what is going on, it can’t directly provide that contact. People who go to work every day or have busy social lives may not see a problem or if they do, they may feel they have too little time left in their busy lives to spend providing company to someone else.
We have lost a lot of activity that used to provide rich social contact. Many work from home instead of going to an office. Church attendance has dropped enormously, along with the social gatherings, choir practices, old people dinners and barn dances they used to organise. Communities don’t have to get together to help a farmer bring in the harvest. People with cars walk less, have more geographically distributed friends and meet fewer of their neighbours.
Many activists today seem rather obsessed with tolerance, albeit in an Orwellian doublespeak sort of way. Perhaps they should be obsessed about caring for others instead of polishing their halos on twitter. If they are eager to solve a problem to make themselves feel virtuous, this one is screaming for help. The rest of us need to be more willing to do our part too. It is easy to focus on our own lives and our own needs. Many of us are content with the friends we have and maybe we are not aware of anyone who is lonely, or admitting to it. I don’t even know the names of some of the people in my street, let alone whether they are lonely. If I did know of someone nearby who I thought was feeling left out, I think I’d be happy to meet them for coffee or a chat sometimes. But I don’t, and I don’t make any effort to find them either. So the problem remains, and I have done nothing to help. There must be millions like me, caring in a distant luke-warm sort of way about a theoretical part of society that I have no contact with. Except that it isn’t theoretical, it is a massive diverse chunk of society that feels left out. Hiding unknown, God knows where, apparently almost everywhere.
Maybe most of us we do care and would do more if we knew what, where, when, and how we could help and if it wasn’t too much hassle or too time consuming. Obviously, those last requirements depend on whether we know the person, so it’s clear that we’ve been running in a vicious cycle of lower contact and therefore caring less. By meeting people more, we’ll get to know them better and care for them more, though I can think of exceptions. I used to be involved in The Samaritans, on a phone line or fundraising to keep the lines open. I stopped doing that a long time ago as work got too busy; we often use that excuse not to get involved. If I think about starting again, I immediately think of the traffic problems getting there, parking issues and so on. I am sure many other people might do more if someone else organised it and it was less hassle. Surely, that’s what activists are for. They organise stuff, motivate people, give them a kick up the pants and tell them to get on with it. With all the social networking and AI out there, this really should be solvable.
Now that we have the prospect of AI and automation promising to improve productivity and everyone is worried about jobs, government should work out how to maintain fair distribution of wealth as machines take over, while taking the windfall of collective spare work force hours to recover some of what we have paid for the rapid economic development to get to this point.
The existence of all these charities and organisations yelling loudly about the problem shows absolutely that a lot of people do care and want to do something about it. If time is the problem, we will soon have more time, collectively at least, and more wealth as the productivity gains hit the economy, so more money to pay for it. That will allow activists and social entrepreneurs and councils to work together to provide human resources to find those who want help, transport to get them to social gatherings of whatever kind is suited to them, and to fund those activities and the places they need. The net may not be intuitive or easy for everyone to use, but plenty of people can work it, and providing access to willing helpers will help many people to find what’s on, who might be there that they are likely to enjoy meeting and making it happen.
Red tape barriers need to be wiped away too. The compensation and box-ticking culture has done huge harm. Lots of village fetes, dances and so on no longer happen because they mean someone now has to apply for assorted licenses, do risk assessments, buy insurances and jump through endless administrative hoops. Why would anyone want to do that? Once upon a time you rang up the hall administrator, booked it, booked a band, then sold tickets. If someone tripped and sprained an ankle, they should have watched where they were going.
The virtuous circle of increasing contact and caring will work, if we can get it going again. People do care more about people they know than someone who is just a statistic. If people with a small level of even theoretical caring for such a large social need can be dragged or otherwise motivated to join in with social activity in their area that someone else has organised, before long, people will have more friends in that area, and they’ll be happy to work together to organise more events and involve more people. Soon, we’ll be back to a proper working society again.
We have the technology. Soon we will have the time and resources to make it happen, to start a virtuous circle to rebuild missing connection in society that leave so many people out, and fix some of the other social problems we created along the way to today’s UK.