Loneliness ‘epidemic’: modern life under fire

A BBC analysis last night exposed the rise of loneliness in Britain. Are technological, social and working changes making us isolated, or should we take more responsibility for ourselves?

‘I am alone, now I know it’s true. There was a time when we were two.’

This was how Bob Lowe began ‘Ode to Kath’, a tribute to his late wife. Bob, a 93-year-old man from Hampshire, was widowed four years ago, and has lived alone since.

Last night, Bob’s story was one of those featured in a BBC documentary, The Age of Loneliness. ‘There’s nothing that can really replace what I’ve lost,’ he told the programme. ‘So I’m going to stay lonely, and have to live with it.’

Bob is one of 7.6 million people who now live on their own in the UK. According to Age UK, last year more than one million people went a month without speaking to anyone. And a study from the University of North Carolina recently suggested that loneliness is as deadly as physical inactivity in young people or diabetes in old people.

Loneliness does not only affect the elderly. Among those featured in the BBC’s programme was 30-year-old Kylie, who lives in London. She says her solitude is made worse by social media: ‘Nobody puts on Facebook — I’ve just spent a week indoors eating Hobnobs’.

And children are increasingly affected by the problem. ChildLine founder Esther Rantzen said this week: ‘I am shocked by the acute unhappiness and loneliness that afflicts so many young people’. She spoke as her charity warned that cyber-bullying and social media were damaging children’s confidence and self-worth. At the same time a scientific paper concluded that Facebook is making people more narrow-minded.

More people also live alone because of higher life expectancy and associated changes to family structures. In 2014 the divorce rate among over-60s in England and Wales had risen by 45% in a decade, while the number of under-25s getting married had fallen by 80% in 40 years. Globalisation has meant families are now more scattered than ever. For example a survey in 2013 showed that 32% of over-65s saw their grandchildren no more than once per month.

One and one is one

Some say the problem is the rise of individualism — the belief that personal needs are more important than the needs of society as a whole. This has developed in rich countries since the beginning of the 20th century, driven by a shift from manual labour to office jobs. The increase in wealth, education and mobility leads to erosion of community life and geographical ties.

Not at all, say others, the trouble goes much deeper. Alone does not necessarily mean lonely. And by contrast it is easy to be lonely in a crowd. The real problem is the void caused by the lack of inner resources such as a rich intellectual and spiritual life. Loneliness is an incompleteness, an emptiness, which we mistakenly believe can be cured by other people.

You Decide

  1. Does being alone make us unhappy?
  2. Are the pressures of modern life making us lonelier?

Activities

  1. Think of someone you know who could be considered lonely. Then discuss with a partner — why might they be lonely, and what could you do to help them?
  2. Age UK have recently been campaigning to raise awareness of loneliness, using the line ‘No one should have no one’ (there is a link to this campaign under ‘Become An Expert’). Prepare an assembly or another event to raise money for the campaign.

Some People Say...

“New opportunities usually end up making our lives worse.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What can I do if I feel lonely?
It’s normal to feel down occasionally and if you do, the best thing is to talk to the people you trust most. But if you feel you have nowhere to turn, or the people you speak to do not understand you, you can try calling ChildLine on 0800 1111. You can also go on their website and hold a one-to-one online chat with a counsellor, or create an account and send them an email.
Who is most vulnerable to loneliness?
Elderly people can often struggle, particularly when they have to deal with bereavement — especially the loss of their partner or friends. But the problem affects young people too. Remember if your classmates or friends change their behaviour dramatically, it may be a reflection of their feeling unhappy for some reason.

Word Watch

ChildLine
The charity is marking its 30th anniversary this year. In 1986-87, they held 23,530 counselling sessions; in 2014-15, the number was 286,812.
Scientific paper
This was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Life expectancy
A study by Public Health England showed that life expectancy in England had risen from 75.9 years in 1990 to 81.3 years in 2013. But there remains a divide between the north and south of the country, while in Scotland the figure in 2014 was 76.8 years.
Divorce rate
ONS data showed that the overall number of divorces in England and Wales increased sharply between 1970 (58,239) and 1972 (119,025). This followed the liberal, permissive social change of the 1960s, which is widely credited with removing much of the social stigma previously attached to divorce. But perhaps surprisingly, it had not increased in 2012, when it stood at 118,140. This may largely be attributable to lower marriage rates: in 2014 more people in Britain had never married than at any time since records began.
Survey
This was conducted by Age UK.

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