Does youth loneliness spell the death of civil society?

How many times in the past month have you felt detached from the people around you? How many times have you checked your phone, hoping for a sympathetic message from a loved one – or groaned, at the barrage of texts and emails from fly-by-night friends and demanding colleagues? You may have felt vexed that the long summer evenings haven’t brought about the spontaneous dinners with friends that you hoped for. Equally, you might have despaired that quality time with your partner – a quiet drink in the garden perhaps – is impossible to fit in around work, commuting, and chores.

What you experienced was a contagious and increasingly common malady in the advanced world: loneliness. This condition, which arises when you have an insufficient number of close, meaningful relationships, gnaws at your innards. It is a constant privation which makes you feel fragile and vulnerable. Over time, it becomes a habit of mind. Feeling let down by those nearest to you, unloved and unlovable, other people seem like a drain on your resources. They become just another source of anxiety, a faceless mass waiting to hurt and disappoint you. For this reason, lonely people have a tendency to tend to isolate themselves further.

When discussing loneliness, we assume that we are talking about elderly people. Every December, the papers feature stories about the number of older people who will be spending Christmas Day alone, accompanied by a heart-rending image of festive misery. The preconception that loneliness is an older person’s misfortune holds across the media, government policy, and much academic research. It’s true that elderly people are at significant risk of loneliness, especially due to life changes associated with aging such as bereavement, loss of mobility, or moving into residential care. Organisations like The Campaign to End Loneliness and Age UK have done important work in raising awareness of the issue amongst the public at large.

But loneliness isn’t a condition which affects only older people. Although we tend to idealise youth as time of carefree exploration and friendship, the stats say otherwise. Several recent surveys indicate that loneliness is at least as prevalent – if not more so – amongst young people. The results of a recent nationwide survey carried out by Opinium on behalf of the Big Lunch showed that 83% of 18-34-year-olds are ‘often, always or sometimes’ lonely. By contrast, around half (48%) of people aged 55+ said they never feel lonely.

The causes of loneliness amongst young people are less obvious than the reasons why elderly people become isolated. What is clear is that young people face an increasingly hostile and competitive world in which jobs are scarce, working hours long, and living costs high. Many commentators have speculated that the rise of social media is to blame – we don’t share our innermost hopes, fears, anxieties, and joys online in the same way as we do face-to-face. Young people feel pressured to present a ‘perfect’ image of themselves online and the risk of public shaming is never far away.

So far, researchers have not delved deeply enough into youth loneliness to understand its root causes. However, we cannot afford to ignore the problem. Loneliness has dire effects on your mental and physical health. Anxiety and depression, common symptoms of loneliness, are already widespread amongst young people. In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 20 and 34 in the UK. Physical symptoms include higher risk of cardiovascular disease and diminished immunity, both of which accrue over time and can have a considerable impact by middle age.

More insidious is the effect loneliness has on society as a whole. Academics who study ‘social capital theory’ believe that society’s success, economically and socially, depends on ‘generalised goodwill’. This term refers to the generosity of spirit which even complete strangers will show towards each other when levels of trust are high. In a society composed of lonely, fearful and suspicious people, generalised goodwill goes out of the window and all interactions are reduced to transactions – mostly, of a monetary nature.

ONS statistics show that the UK is the loneliest nation in Europe: we are less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than inhabitants of any other country in the EU. Given this level of social fragmentation, generalised goodwill is already under threat. By extension, loneliness poses a particular hazard to the voluntary sector, an area of society which depends upon generalised goodwill for its existence. With a generation of young people feeling lonely, you wonder if ‘civil society’ will have any meaning in the years to come.

ACEVO’s new campaign, The Loneliness Project, will mobilise the voluntary sector to turn the tide on loneliness. From our unique position as a network of social leaders, we will investigate why loneliness is affecting an ever-greater number of young people in the UK. We will then propose ways to confront the problem and bring charities and social enterprises together to scale up positive initiatives.

We must take action to avoid becoming a society habituated to loneliness – a nation of recluses, trapped in our daily cycles of work and sleep, with little generosity for others. It matters because loneliness threatens our health and prosperity. It matters more because without community we have no purpose.

ACEVO welcomes comments and opportunities for shared learning from relevant third sector bodies. Interested organisations should email lauren.kelly@acevo.org.uk

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