Why Loneliness Affects So Many Young People
You're not supposed to feel lonely while you're young, surrounded by friends and family, but the truth is it's a bigger concern among young people than any other age group.
Illustration: Glenn August
In 2010, the Mental Health Foundation found that loneliness was a greater concern among 18- to 34-year-olds than those over 55. Last year, VICELAND's UK census revealed that 42 percent of respondents' biggest fear was ending up alone. This data was jarring.
We tend to think of loneliness as something that will take us in its claws when we get old. When companions die, errands are done by 8:45 AM, and the day is punctuated not by conversations but by ad breaks on daytime TV. When time loses its tautness. It's the part of getting old that scares us shitless.
When you're small, loneliness is an abstract concept. Young brains struggle with abstract thinking. I remember sitting in the back of my dad's Volvo Estate singing along to his Revolver cassette, to "Eleanor Rigby," that weird, funeral-like meditation on human isolation. The song I was named after.
"All the lonely people / Where do they all belong?"
Did I know what Macca was on about? Absolutely not. At six years old, my concept of loneliness could be reduced to the phrase, "No one will play with me."
I'd come to know the topography of loneliness, though. How big a double bed feels when you've shared one for five years and love hasn't been enough. How living by yourself for the first time is to be regularly nudging away despair. How swapping chattery offices for self-employment can make conversations at the newsagent feel like Christmas. I'd know the queasy shame bound up in the words "I'm lonely." Because when you're technically "young" (even if, in your 30s, you don't feel it), while potential still fizzes around you, you're not supposed to feel lonely, are you?
Loneliness among the elderly is improving slowly as charities like Age UK re-link older people with the world. But what about the rest of us? What haven't we seen or talked about? To examine loneliness among this age group—my own—we need to zoom out. Look around.
"Loneliness as an epidemic is inextricably linked to the state of society at any given time," says Dr. Jay Watts, a clinical psychologist who regularly writes for the national press. "The neoliberal agenda—common to all governments since Thatcher—has propagated individualism alongside attacks on anything that takes soft relationships seriously." These soft relationships—the doctor who has known us for years, the teacher who has time to get to know us as individuals—are, she says, "sacrificed to the god of efficiency and performance."
The emphasis on the importance of "I" is at the root of much of our distress.
The importance placed on self-sufficiency in our society is immense. "Everywhere, we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism," George Monbiot argued last year. He believes neoliberalism has created loneliness, and it's hard to disagree.
Generation Y is stuck in insecure rental contracts, often with strangers. It's a horrible loop. "Millennials are forced to move frequently under the tyranny of landlords who have no interest in recognizing that establishing ties to one's local community fosters the everyday social relations that make all the difference to our sense of belonging and thus our feeling of loneliness," says Watts. We can't afford to buy houses or have children and, if we're not unemployed, have entered a job market that's rigged against us and will pay us a hell of a lot less than our predecessors. The result? A perpetual state of adolescence. Often well into our 30s. Some are forced to move back in with their parents. Society compels us to drive for self-sufficiency, but that very society we've evolved in holds us back. It pulls us apart from one another. We forget how to make friends, but there are apps for that. If we need a cuddle, we can pay a stranger to give us one.
Money is a vast barrier, though. Unless you're in a reasonably well-paid gig, have some family gold, or a rich partner, it can be a liminal existence. It's easy to see where loneliness creeps in. If parenthood happens, the stakes are even higher. Mumsnet message boards and the many Facebook groups used by young moms reveal the loneliness that burns up and down the country. The consumerist images we're blasted with tell us that having a baby is all twinkly toys, contented gurgles, and softness. The reality is often a messy, frustrating, and unbelievably lonely one, lived out in living rooms, with this little human being at the center of it all who you want to do the best for. Particularly if you're a single parent or if you're on welfare, unable to access what the monied can.
The emphasis on the importance of "I" is at the root of much of our distress. Research has shown that loneliness hurts us on a cellular level. Many models of psychology agree that we're born with some biological predisposition to form attachments. Social contact can reduce physical pain, but social pain also serves an evolutionary function in making us seek connection. Survival among social mammals depends on having robust bonds within the pack. Being on the edge, isolated, makes an animal glint in the eyes of its predator.
Even though it goes against how we're wired as a species, it feels like it's become pitiful to admit to disliking being alone. Particularly if we are young and should be "out there"—whatever "out there" means. But if we subscribe to Sartre's belief that loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition (insert laugh-crying emoji here) then, Christ: Why wouldn't we be compelled to dilute the pain with someone? In being so obsessed with individualism are we ignoring a core aspect of what it means to be human?
The sociologist Robert S. Weiss identified six social needs that contribute to feelings of loneliness when not met: attachment, social integration, nurturance, reassurance of worth, sense of reliable alliance, and guidance in stressful situations. Weiss was influenced by attachment theory and the seminal work of the psychologist John Bowlby in the late 1950s. Bowlby believed that attachment characterizes human experience from "the cradle to the grave." The attachments we have as infants, then, inform the ones we have—or don't have—as adults. If we aren't sharing the burdens of life, loneliness is inevitable. We've built towers of stigma around openly recognizing this.
Stigma is loneliness's kindling. Although not a mental health issue itself, we know that depression and anxiety increases our chances of feeling lonely, which can in turn have a negative impact on mental health. We know that self-harm is the biggest killer of people in their early 20s in the UK, and that loneliness plays a significant role in a person using their body to communicate emotional pain. Stigma prevents people from talking about mental distress, often with fatal consequences.
It's easy to blame social media for the epidemic of loneliness in the young. We can recreate ourselves over and over, promoting holograms that don't reflect the lived reality of our loneliness. Generation Y has grown up with the internet as part of everyday life, but we don't know enough about how it affects our mental health. The data isn't there yet. The digital revolution means the lonely can connect with one another with a degree of anonymity. For those suffering mental health issues, it can be a first step toward seeking help. When I was writing a book about anxiety, I was introduced to soccer message boards and how, in those anonymous boxes, men felt able to discuss their depression with other like-minded men. They encouraged one another to seek support in the outside world.
Social media, Watts argues, also means that people "find it more and more difficult to tolerate compromise and the frustration of long-term everyday relationships, which can leave us drifting outside the stabilization which social bonds give us." This displacement, she says, is exaggerated by changing dating patterns, a.k.a. Tinder. "The ease of swiping left, the idea we should not have to compromise makes these relationships ever more insecure." Of course it does. When did it become gauche to admit to wanting a dependable other?
Being partner-less often means hearing those sermons of how we "need to learn to be by ourselves," particularly if a breakup happened in the recent past. Seeking companionship when we should be "looking after number one" is frowned on. The single people I know aren't enjoying living in this tyranny of "shoulds." One of my friends told me she exercises hard to be so exhausted that she forgets she's lonely. I identified.
"When we're all cohabiting but not necessarily romantically entwined, it's possible to feel deeply lonely, even when your house is full of people and you're going out all the time," says 28-year-old Rachel, who works in advertising in London—identified by studies as one of the loneliest regions in the UK. "Shagging people you don't love can make you feel lonely," Rachel continues. "Dating apps are bleak. Admitting you're lonely as a single woman is especially noxious. Nobody wants to come across like a desperate, warty old maid, so we pretend we're not lonely."
The stigma of loneliness is so ripe that we lie to one another. But as I've learned recently, saying "I'm lonely" has a domino effect. Others start saying it, too. The success of a show like Fleabag is undoubtedly down to its brazen exploration of the loneliness and anger of a single woman. It legitimized the emotions Fleabag's peers were feeling behind our laptop screens. "I fucking hate being alone," says Rachel, with the caveat that I don't use her real name.
So what do we do? Monbiot says that tackling loneliness would require "the reappraisal of an entire worldview." No biggie, then. But he's right when he says that, of all the fantasies human beings entertain, "the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous."
The MP Jo Cox was known in Westminster for wanting to form coalitions across party lines. Seema Kennedy, a Conservative MP, wanted the same. Together, they planned a commission into loneliness to begin in late 2016—a call to action rather than politicians saying stuff and doing nothing. On June 16, 2016, Cox's ambition was cut short. She was murdered in her West Yorkshire constituency. Her killer, Thomas Mair, was an extreme right-wing terrorist. A loner.
In the wake of Cox's death, Kennedy and others are taking her plans forward. They have revealed the great work Cox did, gathering data on loneliness to emphatically prove it's not just something that affects older people. Figures collected by 13 charities reveal that more than 9 million people in the UK—almost a fifth of the population—say they are always or often lonely. Two-thirds feel uncomfortable admitting to it. Cox knew that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. "She called loneliness the 'silent epidemic,'" says Rachel Wicks, who works on the commission's PR. "We want to start conversations."
Our worldview is not going to change overnight. Possibly not in a generation. So we have to think small, of the everyday—verbalize our own loneliness, be aware of others' circumstances and how loneliness is cultivated, break through our awkwardness and call people that we know want to hear from us. At the root of our loneliness is what Watts calls the "lost fundamental drive"—that is, belonging to a community that registers and cares about us. That's what we need to remember.
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