Imagine there was a virus you’d never heard of which increased the likelihood of mortality by 26%, or a condition which had a death rate comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A national health crisis would be declared, and judging by the reaction to the coronavirus, panic would ensue. This public health crisis, which leaves its victims more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s and other dementias, has a name: loneliness.
More than 2 million adults suffer from chronic loneliness; and although its most severe form is more prevalent among Britain’s oldest citizens, younger adults report loneliness more than any other age group.
A desire for social connection is fundamentally hardwired into our psychology, and so being deprived of it has devastating mental and physical consequences. Yet we live in a society which has become ever more fragmented and atomised. This coincides with the decline of Britain’s industrial era. Though this period was male-dominated, and the work often physically damaging, whole communities were based around mines, docks and factories. Call centres, supermarkets, office blocks and zero-hours work do not provide the same social connections.
Indeed, in that era the problem was often the opposite of loneliness: of claustrophobia, of everyone knowing what everyone else was up to. Jobs have become more precarious and staff turnover has increased while union membership has plummeted, weakening workplace solidarity.
Alongside this, the mass sell-off of council housing and the collapse of homeownership among younger people has forced many of them towards the insecure private-rented sector, leaving them unable to set down lasting roots in communities. While more than three-quarters of us think it would be better if we knew our neighbours, 73% of us don’t even know their names. More and more of us live alone, and while some may consider the 28% rise in the numbers working from home as liberating, it is undoubtedly isolating too.
The social spaces where we congregate and connect are dying. In the 1970s, there were more than 4,000 working men’s clubs; just 1,300 remain. A quarter of Britain’s pubs have closed since the beginning of the century. Nightlife is withering: in 2018 alone, the number of British nightclubs fell by a fifth. The decade-long fall in young people’s living standards has robbed them of their collective spaces: hundreds of youth centres have closed their doors. And almost 800 libraries have been axed in the decade of austerity.
Nonbelievers may welcome the collapse in British religiosity, but the decline in church attendance has meant that the chance to chat each week with other people has vanished.
Is this unravelling of social connections inevitable and irreversible? On Tuesday night at the Old Red Lion pub in Kennington, south London, there were people in their 80s chatting to women six decades younger. This was the local group of The Cares Family: an initiative bringing together older locals and young professionals in urban areas. The pub gives everyone a free drink, and they mingle: I found myself chatting to a woman born in 1939 who fought for equal pay in the 60s, and another who became isolated after spending years caring for her ill mother, and now fears there will be no one to care for her at the end of life.
Here is an imaginative attempt to overcome loneliness and bridge Britain’s generational divide. “I think obviously there’s a big difference between being lonely and being isolated,” says Annie, a 26-year-old volunteer from Bath. “It’s easy to feel lonely ... in London everyone is doing their own thing. But older people are genuinely isolated: there’s no social structure around them, they often don’t have family and friends around them.”
Here are clubs that build connections, and self-confidence too. Activities range from singing in choirs to script reading. Some attract 150 people, young and old in equal numbers, ranging from working-class white residents from “old London” to first-generation migrants.
The Cares Family is the brainchild of Alex Smith, a former Labour activist who met an octogenarian named Fred while door-knocking for a council election. Fred had never missed an election before, but he hadn’t been able to leave the house in three months: so Alex wheeled him to the polling station, watching as Fred waved and smiled at people he hadn’t seen for ages.
Alex discovered that Fred had once run a fancy-dress shop in Camden Town that he visited in his youth. “I realised there were a lot of people like Fred,” Alex explains, with deep historic community connections but few current ones. And though Alex had “loads of connections” on social media, his community roots had “frayed or gone unattended in the rush of working life and digitisation”.
This network has helped transform lives: Alex cites an older woman who would ask a cab driver to drop her off outside a chippy so she could chat to people coming and going; now she has somewhere she can establish meaningful connections.
Here’s a community network that makes clear that the long drift towards isolation is not inevitable. All of us need to connect with others, even as society has robbed us of opportunities to do so. An atomised, fragmented society is not simply sad – something to passively mourn – but contributes to a major public health crisis. Loneliness is devastating our mental and physical health and, at its worst, is killing us. Yet thankfully, unlike some conditions, we can easily cure it. We just need the will.