Loneliness is on the rise
The house is silent, save for the typing on my keyboard. My lodger is out, visiting Wales; my children do not live with me. However, I’m meeting a friend in the pub shortly, children and grandchildren will be here tomorrow. I am not lonely; I have much to be grateful for.
There are over eight million people living alone in the UK, with 726,000 in the east of England. This is a 20% rise on the number 25 years ago. At current rates of projection, nearly half the adult population will be living alone by the end of the decade. For comparison, in the early 1970s, only six percent of homes were occupied by someone under pension age living on their own. The housing crisis is not the result of an increased population, immigrants or even advances in life expectancy. It’s mainly caused by our new, solitary ways of living.
For some, living on their own will be a conscious choice, and a matter of personal freedom. There are many benefits: one is king or queen of one’s own domain, with no wrestling over the remote control, no compromises to be made, nor the irritating peccadilloes of another to put up with. Life, within one’s own four walls, is performed as one sees fit, which many people sharing a dwelling would view as an unobtainable luxury. On the positive side, a 2019 survey of sole dwellers found that 74% enjoyed living on their own, and a similar number felt they had chosen their current living situation, but conversely – showing that it’s possible to hold two opposing viewpoints – more than a third felt lonely as a result.
Even before the current economic malaise, the census results from 2021 showed people living on their own spending 9% extra of their disposable income as a result of having to meet all the bills themselves; but the cost of living on one’s own is more than purely financial. Over a million people in the UK feel they have no one they can call for company; over half of those people feel there is nobody they could call on for help.
Old and young
Eleanor Rigby, of the eponymous Beatles song, was the typical lonely person of her time; women, living longer than men, are more likely to ‘end up’ alone. Men, statistically, are most likely to live solo, and it’s not until late middle-age that the genders achieve parity. However, this is no longer solely due to bereavement: with more later-life divorces causing household breakups, and the prospect, for at least one partner, of always returning to an empty home. Norfolk pensioner Doris, when asked why she bought so many things, replied, “It’s because in a shop I have someone to talk to, and for a few minutes during the sale, they care about me.”
Young people can feel isolated too. Cambridgeshire graduate Tom says, “University prospectuses show groups of happy young people, but it’s common to feel lonely there. After my friends graduated and left, I didn’t really get on with my new housemates and spent a lot of time in my room or the library. You feel you’re missing out on the fun.”
On average, an adult alone In their own household will feel 10% less happy and 10% more anxious than the happiest in society (who are couples without children). The cruelty of enforced Bacchanalia that is upon us, now that December is here, is that every associated image urging us to buy, to eat, to drink and to be merry focuses on family and friends and loved ones. With a million people having no-one to call on to dispel their loneliness, Christmas cheer will not visit every household in a few week’s time.
Loneliness reduction strategy
The late, terribly lamented Jo Cox MP said, due to her own experience of loneliness at university, and seeing its effects on her constituents, “I will not live in a country where thousands of people are living lonely lives forgotten by the rest of us”.
Five years ago the UK government became the first in the world to publish a loneliness reduction strategy, largely due to Jo Cox’s initiatives, and those of the Foundation set up in her name after her death. Since then, annual reports on tackling loneliness have been issued by the government, and the Office of National Statistics now measures loneliness on an annual basis.
According to a study by the Co-op, loneliness costs private sector employers around £2.5bn due to absence and productivity losses; but the true impact of living alone, not by choice, is unquantifiable. The Jo Cox Commission recognised that government could only do so much to tackle the issue. It called for every one of us to respond to what is, without drama, a crisis.
How to help
So this Christmas, perhaps consider less the value of giving things to others and think of who you could spend time with, for whom that would be the greatest gift. Try not to ‘tut’ at the person in the queue making conversation with checkout staff; those could be the first words they’ve exchanged with a living soul all week. Check in on those you know are alone. Giving our time, our care, alleviating the solitude of others, would not only be appropriate to the season, but also addresses a cause close to Jo Cox’s heart. It matters not where the lonely people come from; more that, if we can, we shine some light into their world at Christmas.
Finding company at Christmas
Comedian Sarah Millican will again be organising an open-to-all community chat on Twitter on Christmas Day. Anyone can ‘join in’. #JoinIn