Are millennials really alone in their loneliness?
A new, worldwide survey has come up with surprising results on who is lonely, and why
We’re often told that we are facing an epidemic of loneliness: a study from the UK's Office for National Statistics in April placed the young at the epicentre, while only last week a charity report predicted soaring numbers of over-50s would class themselves as lonely by the end of the decade.
As the presenter of All In The Mind, the BBC series that explores the human experience, I wanted to determine the real state of loneliness: who’s experiencing it, what’s causing it – and how people have succeeded in escaping it.
So last year, I approached the Wellcome Collection to back The Loneliness Experiment, the world’s largest-ever survey on loneliness. I had no idea how many people might take part.
Working on the questions with leading academics from three British universities, we had so many that we ended up producing an online survey that would take more than half an hour to fill in. Would anyone bother to do it? The answer was a resounding “yes”. In total, 55,000 people around the world took part.
What struck me was that the stereotype of loneliness often involves an isolated, older person living on their own, but only 27% of our over-75s classed themselves as lonely.
The most headline-grabbing finding is that loneliness in young people was far higher – some 40% of 16- to 24-year-olds told us they experienced it more often and more intensely.
Professor Louise Arseneault from King’s College London, who has long studied loneliness, wasn’t surprised: “I trust this data,” she told me. “We tend to think of those years as being about partying and making relationships but, actually, they’re not that easy. Historically, we’ve tended to ignore that.”
So is there something about modern life, and young people’s ability to cope with it, that is making this generation lonelier – or is youth simply a time of life when people feel isolation most keenly?
I can remember meeting people in my first week at university and then finding that at the weekend they all went home. I thought I’d be out with lots of new friends having nonstop fun and, instead, found myself wondering how to kill the time on my own.
Leaving university was a bit of surprise, too. I moved in with my boyfriend, but had been used to sharing a house for four, where lots of visitors came and went. I soon realised, when I was on my own in the flat, that if I didn’t arrange anything, no one would knock on the door.
In our survey, we asked people aged 16 to 99 at what point in their lives they had felt loneliest. The most common answer was when they were young adults. So perhaps this is nothing new. Professor Christina Victor from Brunel University London, part of the team that created and analysed the survey, says: “While this wasn’t a competition to see which was the loneliest age, we’ve never had a survey that included so broad a range of ages. So for all we know, the loneliness of the young could be a continuation of a pattern dating back to the 50s. It’s just we never bothered to ask.”
The teens and 20s might seem like a time unrestricted by ill-health or family commitments but, as an inevitable period of transition, they bring their own stresses.
This certainly rang true for the young people I interviewed, who told me about finding themselves living in cities, watching strangers happily brunching with friends, while they had no one to go out with. A young woman called Michelle told me she would find herself going shopping just to be around other people.
We found that people felt there was a stigma around loneliness – that this was an age when they should be having the time of their lives, so if they weren’t there must be something wrong with them. In fact, it’s more common than they realise.
Loneliness could be a normal part of growing up, rather than something we should pathologise.
In many ways, young people today are more connected than ever before, though social media brings its own problems. If you’re feeling lonely, looking at pictures of other people appearing to have fun isn’t going to help. Yet through social media, people who feel excluded also have a golden opportunity: online is the place where you can find your tribe.
Feeling lonely is undoubtedly unpleasant, but the good news for young people is that these painful feelings might ease with age. Professor Pamela Qualter from the University of Manchester, another member of the team, says: “Younger people didn’t just report a higher frequency of loneliness, but a higher intensity of loneliness, and that gives us a further clue about what might be going on over a life course.
“You might not know at that age that loneliness is a feeling that doesn't last forever. Younger people experience loneliness more intensely because it might be the first time they’ve experienced it at all.”
This makes me wonder if this might be an upside to getting older.
Victor says that as life goes on, people develop coping strategies: “By the time you get to midlife or later, you’ve worked out that when you’re feeling a bit lonely, you should go for a walk or read a book or listen to the radio. You develop strategies that work for you in managing loneliness.”
Now in my 40s, if I’ve been working at home on my own all day and want some company, I head out to my tiny front garden to deadhead my dahlias. Strangers stop and chat, and neighbours often join me.
A lonely generation of young people sounds bleak, but they do have one advantage. They will probably escape it; however, older people experiencing loneliness might feel that way for the remainder of their lives, if others don’t step in.
Sophie Andrews, CEO of The Silver Line, a free helpline providing friendship and advice to the elderly, says: “If you’re 90, living in a rural area, the bus service goes and you’ve got limited mobility, how do you change your situation?”
One of the most popular solutions people gave us in the survey was “starting a conversation with anyone”. It doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful, but perhaps we could all take more time to chat to others, young and old, as a reminder that we are all humans sharing the same world.
‘Admitting I was lonely prompted friends to say they felt the same’
Maria Lally, 39
When I was 33 and had just had my second child, I would talk to my friends about anything. Nothing was off limits, except for how lonely I sometimes was.
Three years ago, I wrote about how isolated I had felt after moving out of London, where we were surrounded by friends, to a Surrey village, where we knew nobody. After “coming out” about my loneliness, the response was huge; friends confessed they, too, felt lonely.
One single pal confessed that, while she hated herself for saying so, she felt lonely on Sundays when her friends were doing family stuff. I had no idea.
Just like she had no idea how lonely I was.
‘Social media made me feel lonelier’
Daisy Buchanan, 33
When someone says “loneliness”, the first phrase my brain alights on is “Sunday afternoons”. There I am, in bed, surrounded by magazines and cereal bowls, clicking and scrolling. During my mid-20s, when I was using social media heavily, I went through the loneliest period of my life.
At the time, I had a job I adored, an on-off boyfriend and a busy social life. I was lucky – which made it hard to admit how keenly the loneliness could sting.
Social media has always felt like a world of “We” that I am not invited to. I used it to find comfort and connection, but I’d leave feeling separate from the rest of the world.
Everyone else seemed to live a life filled with proposals and promotions – I had nothing special to share.
After one especially lonely self-loathing Sunday, it occurred to me that I had to learn to like spending time with myself. It’s important to reframe the way we feel about being by ourselves. After all, if we’re OK with being alone, it means we're OK with who we are.
‘Healing loneliness is the responsibility of all of us’
Dame Esther Rantzen, 78
I remember speaking to Jo Cox, the much-missed UK MP who was murdered in 2016, when she was first setting up her Commission on Loneliness, and we agreed it could affect every age.
The young mother in the playground with only her toddler to talk to. The teenager pursued by cyberbullies.
Jo said: “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.”
The really alarming finding is that loneliness affects almost one-fifth of the population. No wonder UK Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch MP as Minister for Loneliness.
But I believe healing loneliness, especially among older people, is a responsibility that families, friends and neighbours can take on, too.
A friend of mine, Gwen, is a widow who lives in a village.
People drop by five or six times a day to eat one of her freshly baked scones, have a cup of tea and take her dog for a walk. When snow falls, her path is kept clear.
If “community care” means anything, that village is a perfect example.
So it can be done.
– © The Daily Telegraph