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Takeaway: Loneliness is increasingly being treated as a dire public health threat. What has the young and old feeling the blues?

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Want to talk, but have no one to call? You’re not alone. According to a recent survey from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), more than two in ten adults in the United States (22 percent) and the United Kingdom (23 percent) say they always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated. Figures like these have been ubiquitous in the press lately, with alarming statistics about loneliness now accompanied by equally alarming warnings that it’s stunting our lives and outright killing us. The scourge of loneliness is an issue that we’re going to hear about more and more in the years to come, with leaders emphasizing the importance of community.

The Economist/KFF findings add to a wave of recent research showing high levels of loneliness. Earlier this year, for example, a survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults from the health insurer Cigna revealed that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). Fully 54 percent said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. What’s more, 2 in 5 feel that their "relationships aren't meaningful" and that they "are isolated from others."

In recent years, a growing chorus of doctors have been warning about loneliness’s devastating toll on health. Scientists have long known that loneliness is emotionally painful and can lead to psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia—and in cases of extreme isolation, even hallucinatory delirium. But only recently have they recognized how destructive it is to the body. In 2015, researchers at UCLA discovered that social isolation triggers cellular changes that result in chronic inflammation, predisposing the lonely to serious physical conditions like heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. One 2015 analysis, which pooled data from 70 studies following 3.4 million people over seven years, found that lonely individuals had a 26 percent higher risk of dying. This figure rose to 32 percent if they lived alone.

How do we measure loneliness? Because of the inherent limitations of surveys asking people directly about their loneliness levels, the most effective approach is to use measures of social isolation—for example, living alone or single marital status—as proxies. Not only is social isolation known to be highly correlated with feelings of loneliness, but some researchers find that social isolation has its own effects on health independent from those of loneliness.

So what does the trend in living alone look like over time? We see a sweeping upward curve, with rates that begin near zero but have since exploded. Worldwide, up until the 1960s, single-person households were exceedingly rare. But over the past 50 years, the share of U.S. households consisting of one person has more than doubled. It’s now the second most common household type, well ahead of married couples with minor children. Living alone is most prevalent in large cities, where around 40 percent of households have single occupants. In some neighborhoods in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the share is as high as two-thirds­.

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Even as they rise over time, loneliness rates also show revealing differences by age and generation.

Let’s start with age. In most societies, loneliness resembles a U-shaped curve: Subjective loneliness is high in adolescence and young adulthood, declines through middle age, and rises again in old age. In affluent democracies like the United States, the back end of this curve tends to disappear. In the Cigna study, for instance, loneliness scores fell steadily with age: from a score of 48 at age 18-22, 45 at every bracket through age 51, 42 at age 52-71, and 39 for 72+. On the other hand, in less affluent and rapidly modernizing societies with a lack of social safety nets, seniors are the loneliest age bracket.

Now let’s add generational effects, which push the phase-of-life curve up or down according to birth cohort. The G.I. Generation’s rising living standards and high savings rates after World War II—combined with their success at expanding social insurance for seniors—made possible an increasingly solo lifestyle as they grew older. This happened first in the birth of the suburban nuclear family in the 1950s and 1960s and then in the spread of independent "senior living" in the 1970s and 1980s. The Silent Generation began retiring at age 65 in the 1990s at the peak of senior solo-living rates. Since then, they have pulled the rate down a bit due to more seniors living with their grown children and to rising male longevity (which leads to fewer widows).

The retirement of the G.I. Generation coincided with Boomers coming of age. It was the peak of the “generation gap,” and Boomers were as eager to leave their parents as their parents were to leave their kids. The result? The 1970s saw the sharpest decline of any decade in the 20th century in the average number of persons per household. As they’ve aged, Boomers have continued to drive up rates of solo living in each age bracket they’ve occupied. (See: “Boomers Go Solo.”) Generation X has taken these trends in the opposite direction. While Xers haven’t campaigned for togetherness on a societal level, they have sought it in their own lives and families.

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Millennials are prioritizing groups both on a personal and societal level. They haven’t had time to impact rates of living alone over the long term. But for now, they’ve largely stabilized the rates in their age bracket. Solo-living rates have ticked up a bit among young people since 2012, but the rise could have been much larger considering how long they are delaying getting married or having kids. Millennials are congregating in makeshift communities: living with each other in ersatz families, flocking to co-working spaces, and using technology to stay in close communication.

So far, much of the alarm surrounding loneliness has been met with efforts by public officials to help older residents build social connections. In January, for example, the United Kingdom appointed a minister for loneliness. Health care providers and other businesses are stepping in with their own solutions as well, launching hotlines, home visits, and clinics that double as gathering spaces. More nursing homes are offering residents the company of a robot or an animatronic pet. In Japan, a popular “anti-loneliness” café chain seats solo diners with stuffed animal companions.

Building social connections isn’t an unwelcome goal. But these policy initiatives are hardly sufficient to stop or even slow the momentum of a social trend which has been gathering steam worldwide for decades. And when we can’t easily slow something, we had better brace for the consequences. In this case, the consequences include rising rates of chronic physical and emotional illness triggered by loneliness and social isolation (including the so-called “deaths of despair” highlighted by Nobel laureate Angus Deaton) as well as a further drift in politics toward communitarian agendas.


TAKEAWAYS

Surveys show that people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. The issue has attracted growing attention from public officials and health experts, who have tied loneliness to unfavorable health outcomes—from higher rates of emotional and physiological illness to higher mortality rates.

  • Loneliness isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. In a nationwide survey released in October from the BBC, a third of Britons said that they often or very often feel lonely. According to the charity Age UK, nearly half of Britons over 65 consider the television or a pet their main source of company. In Japan, there are more than half a million people under 40 who haven’t left their house or interacted with anyone for at least six months. The growing popularity of living alone is also mirrored around the world. In Canada, the share of solo households is now 28 percent. Across the European Union, it’s 34 percent.
  • Other qualitative behavioral changes may also be contributing to a loneliness epidemic. The measured rise in solo living across America is indeed dramatic. But other factors also point to declining social connectedness, such as delayed marriage and family formation; the erosion of civic organizations and other traditional sources of social support; declining job security; declining face-to-face interaction; and declining trust in institutions. To be sure, not all forms of social connectedness are declining. Some are improving—family time, for instance. It’s also possible that technological innovation is masking new forms of social cohesion. But on balance, it’s fair to say that our social bonds are weakening and our social horizons are narrowing.
  • Millennials may be the most active seekers of togetherness. There’s evidence that loneliness among American high school and college students has actually declined over the past few decades. Yet loneliness is still something that greatly troubles Millennials. According to the 2016 VICELAND UK Census, a broad-based survey of U.K. Millennials, loneliness is the number one fear of young people today—ranking ahead of losing a home, losing a job, and becoming the victim of a terrorist attack. A separate survey by Everyday Health finds that 42 percent of Millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis, by far the highest share of any generation. This fear has been ingrained into the very lexicon of Millennials, immortalized in acronyms like “FOMO” and its many companion terms.