Friend rentals and robots: How businesses are creating solutions for the loneliness epidemic

Companionship and cuddles are on sale as ‘the loneliness economy’ takes off amidst a spike in the rate of isolation

People sit on the blue chairs of the Promenade des Anglais before their removal to avoid public gatherings during the second national lockdown as part of the measures to fight a second wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nice, France, November 12, 2020. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

The phrase ‘the loneliness epidemic’ went viral long before lockdowns isolated us even further (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

In the fall of 2019—a time that’s beginning to acquire the sunlit aura that earlier generations ascribed to the spring months before the guns of August opened the First World War in 1914—British economist Noreena Hertz went out for the day in Manhattan with her new “friend” Brittany. It was arranged through a company called RentAFriend, which now offers 620,000 platonic friends worldwide at varying rates—Brittany, a 23-year-old Ivy League grad, was priced at US$40 an hour. The two women visited clothing shops and bookstores, chatting about #MeToo, the recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a hero to the young American) and Brittany’s other clients, whom she summed up as “lonely 30- to 40-year-old professionals, the kind of people who work long hours and don’t seem to have time to make many friends.”

For Hertz, it was just another quirk of what she calls the “loneliness economy” in her new book, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart. And a platonic friend is far from the most arresting aspects of the service: non-sexual physical contact—cuddles, for short—is also on offer, or was in the days before COVID, albeit at a higher price (US$80 an hour). “It was fascinating to see,” Hertz says in an interview, in an economy that has done so much to fragment community, “that the market has identified a problem—a demand for connection, community, companionship, even cuddles, that people weren’t finding on their own—and stepped in to deliver services and products to meet it.”

That felt lack of connection—and our varied responses to it—has inspired not only Hertz’s book, but also ever-louder alarms among a coterie of academics and health professionals in the 21st century. Rates of self-reported loneliness and isolation have not stopped increasing since social scientists started tracking them decades ago. “A famous study on this,” says San Francisco psychiatrist Michael Bader, “asked people how many others in their lives did they feel they could share themselves with, really share with confidence, and the average number 20 years ago was three. Then 10 years ago, the average was two, and now it’s pretty much one. And if you eliminated family members, a majority had no one. Now that’s isolation. And that’s also loneliness.”

It’s always been a malaise seen most sharply in the very old, those 80 and over, and more recently in university-aged young people transitioning to adulthood. But it is now rampant throughout demographic cohorts in economically advanced countries. In 2018, independent surveys conducted in the U.S. and U.K. found 40 per cent of 20,000 American respondents lacking a meaningful relationship and experiencing social isolation, while a third of 55,000 Britons said they often felt lonely. A 2019 Angus Reid study grouped almost a quarter of Canadians under the label “the desolate,” both lonely and isolated, with large related groups: lonely but not isolated (10 per cent of the population), and isolated but not lonely (15 per cent). Everywhere, racial and sexual minorities, and those with mobility issues, report higher levels.

READ: The quarantine hotel chef who takes a bite out of COVID patients’ loneliness

The distinction between loneliness (a subjective emotional feeling) and isolation (an objective reality) is almost meaningless to researchers like Bader and Hertz. But it is significant to others, including Ami Rokach, a Canadian-Israeli member of York University’s psychology department. He became interested in the subject 40 years ago as a grad student looking for a research area. He read the sparse literature available at the time and attended a conference in Ottawa, where—alone for a day in a city where he knew no one, he stared out at passersby from his seventh-floor hotel window until “it suddenly dawned on me—I think for the first time in my life—that’s how loneliness sees: the world is there but we’re not really part of it.” For Rokach, whose latest paper discusses the experience of loneliness among the vision-impaired, “there is an essential human loneliness that goes back to one’s childhood and is intertwined with a person’s personality.”

Regardless of whether their gaze turns to the personal or to a socio-economic structure they believe drives alienation—or to both—all experts agree that the pain loneliness causes is a natural outcome for a solitary member of a social species. As Rokach puts it, “It’s like a herd of zebras running, and the one that lags behind becomes the lions’ lunch. Loneliness is a protective mechanism like hunger; it tells us we need to do something about our precarious state.” Nor is there any dispute over how deadly loneliness and social isolation can be. They have been tightly connected with a range of health problems, from heart attacks and strokes increasing by about 30 per cent, to alcohol and drug abuse, to anxiety, depression and a staggering 64 per cent higher chance of clinical dementia. In the now famous summation of a 2015 meta-analysis of studies that totalled 3.4 million people tracked over seven years, loneliness is far worse than obesity, worse than 15 cigarettes a day.

Even the isolated but not lonely—meaning a few hermits but primarily people who have become accustomed to their situation—still experience the effects. “Our brains are wired to be social,” Bader says. “When people are socially connected, their brains secrete oxytocin, the attachment hormone. Even if you have adapted to being alone, it doesn’t mean your brain’s threat assessment system is not activated. Your brain is reading your world all the time, even when you’re not conscious of it.” And if it perceives lions, or any other threat you lack collective protection from, “it will secrete epinephrine and cortisol affecting multiple systems in the body, including the immune system.”

READ: This isolation-induced laziness is a privilege. Take it while you can.

No wonder, then, that Britain created the world’s first cabinet-level ministry of loneliness in 2018. Or that the phrase “the loneliness epidemic” went viral long before COVID-19 itself. By the end of last March, as the pandemic’s first wave surged, one-third of humanity was under some kind of lockdown. The effects have been both predictable and surprising. Intimate partner and elder abuse cases spiked, as did calls to mental health support services. The population as a whole chafed under its restrictions, while the already vulnerable, including the lonely old, suffered more.

Rochelle McAlister, senior manager of seniors’ mental health and addiction at Toronto’s WoodGreen Community Services, says the virus alone has been hard on her clientele because of their high-risk demographic, and their understandable caution in letting visitors into their homes. Add the lockdown closures that keep them inside “and there’s fear on top of loneliness,” she says. “In normal times we’re running all kinds of programs for seniors but now, without them, we’re definitely seeing decreases in cognition and mental health. It’s actually a lot worse for caregivers who are used to having the break the programs provided.”

WoodGreen’s crisis helpline has exploded in use. “There are people who are calling every day and some do have levels of distress,” McAlister says, “but most are just reaching out because they want to hear a human voice.” The staff has had to put restrictions on those who call too often: shorter calls or requests to call only every second day. “Thank God, as I was telling my staff, that they have you—compassionate persons—on the other end of the line really listening to them, like the man trying to take his life on a phone call the other day.”

Other health professionals have been petitioning their governments for more resources for troubled teens and children.

Hug rooms, like this one at a care home in Italy, allow residents much-needed touch (Salvatore Laporta/Kontrolab/LightRocket/Getty Images)
Hug rooms, like this one at a care home in Italy, allow residents much-needed touch (Salvatore Laporta/Kontrolab/LightRocket/Getty Images)

But far more unexpected were the early lockdown reactions of many lonely adults. During the first U.K. closure, says British cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti, author of the 2019 A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion, she heard relief in the voices of the already-lonely, “because they were able to say, ‘I don’t feel alone—I feel like other people understand me, how I feel, now.’ ” Rokach saw the same in Canada and Israel. “Loneliness is stigmatized in our society. If I’m lonely it is because other people don’t befriend me, and they don’t befriend me because I’m no good, a loser. Our culture adores success.” And both observers saw the crash after the brief high. “When the lockdown was lifted and other people saw their friends and family again,” says Alberti, “the lonely felt worse than they ever had before, because it was just so clear that they lacked something fundamental.”

Like the long-term health outcomes of the coronavirus itself, the lockdowns’ full implications remain uncertain. Health-care workers in Beijing quarantined during the 2003 SARS outbreak, almost never for more than a month, were more likely to suffer serious depression three years later than those who had not been, according to research cited by Hertz in The Lonely Century. A different study of Beijing hospital employees found that three years after SARS, alcoholism was higher among those who had been quarantined than those who were not, with significant numbers still suffering from PTSD, experiencing symptoms including hyper-vigilance, nightmares and flashbacks. “That should ring alarm bells,” Hertz says, “given the extensive isolation experienced in 2020.”

On the whole, though, COVID’s relationship with loneliness is distanced and familiar: the pandemic and the contradictory mantra it gave birth to—we are all in this together; please keep away from me—has exposed every crack in our society, from income inequality to our trust in one another, and exacerbated them all. But it caused none of them. As the researchers of the “loneliness epidemic” demonstrated years ago, we were already there.

READ: Strict COVID-19 protocols are leaving seniors lonely, depressed and wondering: Is it worth it?

Alberti pushes the origin of the loneliness crisis back two centuries, to around 1800, when the word “lonely,” previously far more akin to the neutral “solitary” than it is now, first became a negative emotive word. When the poet William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud,” he was not expressing pain. The standard word at the time for the state of being alone was “oneliness,” likewise an unemotional statement of fact. Within a few decades, however, loneliness was freighted with the baggage of emptiness and absence it carries today. What happened to it, writes Alberti, was “industrialization, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology,” all of which helped propel the rise of individualism.

Bader, a political progressive as well as a psychologist, agrees with that conclusion, adding that his country’s “mythic sense of the triumph of the individual” is central to a “dog-eat-dog” America submersed in the ethos of the capitalist marketplace. The rise of personal autonomy to society’s highest value has meant “a toxic brew of social isolation and loneliness created by the flip side of the meritocratic myth—the self-doubt and depressive self-criticism caused by the notion that one’s station in life reflects one’s intrinsic value.” Even Rokach, who believes we are seeing more loneliness rather than experiencing more, acknowledges that its expression is culturally determined, and that the lonely in more individualistic countries tend to see themselves as personal failures or, in Trump­ian terms, “losers.” And they tend not to want to admit it: “In 40 years of clinical experience,” says Rokach, “only one patient has ever opened treatment by saying his problem was loneliness.”

For her part, Alberti thinks that loneliness—which, despite her book’s subtitle, she considers a cluster of emotive states potentially combining everything from grief and resentment to existential dread—is not only cultural in its expression but gendered. “Men and women report and experience loneliness differently because of the different ways in which they form community and engage with other people. Men do have the kinds of connectedness to community women do, but their relationships tend to be forged through work. So when that’s gone, it affects them hard. Whereas women can get lonely in terms of having a new baby or a new marriage, but also often have a web of non-work relationships.”

Most observers do think loneliness is still accelerating, and for socio-economic, not health, causes. Consider Hertz’s reasoning on how three seemingly disparate facts led her to consider loneliness as a lens through which she could link some contemporary phenomena. The first was her twentysomething students “coming to see me in office hours and telling me how lonely and isolated they felt. I’d been teaching for 20 years and this was a new phenomenon,” one that coupled with the way some seemed to struggle with face-to-face interactions during group assignments. She raised the matter with an acquaintance she declines to identify, “who is the president of one of America’s most prestigious universities, and he said to me, we think exactly the same thing here, to the extent we have to run ‘how to read a face in real life’ classes for incoming students.”

Another development was the way being entrenched at home (long before the pandemic), working on her book, Hertz found herself thinking of Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa “in increasingly affectionate terms.” That led her into one of the most fascinating parts of The Lonely Century—its exploration of the loneliness economy. During the first COVID lockdown, as Hertz suffered through her own bout with the virus—an experience that has left “all berries tasting of chemicals”—the economist noted that the U.K. price of pedigree pets was “shooting through the roof,” while the demand for social robots, “mechanical AI objects designed specifically to feel emotionally attuned with you,” spiked. But long before the virus arrived, she was already paying attention to how some elderly Japanese women knitted bonnets for their robot companions. Our social species was looking for non-human substitutes to fill the void.

READ: The bright side of self-isolation: All the pets who found homes

Or simply for uncommon human connection. Other aged Japanese, presumably too poor to buy a robot, had taken to petty crimes in pursuit of jailhouse companionship. In Japan, crimes committed by people 65 and older have quadrupled this century. Scholar Koichi Hamai has recorded how half of them were living alone before going to jail, a place one 78-year-old prisoner described as “an oasis” where there are many people to talk to. Carl, the subject of Hertz’s most arresting interview, turned to cuddles for hire. A good-looking, middle-aged, divorced software engineer in Los Angeles, Carl was lonely and desperate, not for sex, but for touch—a stroke along his arm, a shoulder rub. He heard about Jean, who for US$80 an hour, dispensed strokes and hugs in her studio apartment, and he found the experience—which soon included intimate conversations about his deepest thoughts and concerns—intensely therapeutic. Eventually, once a week with Jean was not enough, and Carl found other professional cuddlers. As his costs rose to US$2,000 a month, Carl abandoned his home and started to live in his car. “I was astounded when he told me that,” recalls an emotional Hertz. “What a stain on society that this is where we’ve got to, with people so desperate for affection, having to live in their cars. But his story is also kind of a mark of how omnipotent the market is in providing a ‘solution’ to any problem.”

Cuddle buyers and voluntary jailbirds are outliers, of course, and most of the loneliness economy is almost too mundane for most of us to notice. Back when office towers were still packed with workers, one in five in the U.S. reported not having a single friend at work. That’s one in five regular staff, not gig workers on temporary hire, whose office friendship rates would be closer to zero. That’s because, Hertz argues, the modern workplace has long lacked what it takes to build community. The open-plan office, born out of cost-cutting, “was sold to employees as a place where they were more likely to co-operate and collaborate, but in practice, became a kind of dystopian panopticon where people put on their noise-cancelling headphones and communicate by text and email with their colleagues.” Other workplace rituals have also been lost in recent years, “like eating together and having breaks at the same time, rather than eating alone at your desk.”

The meal issue may sound small, Hertz agrees, but it can make a major difference. Behavioural scientists at Cornell University spent nearly a year and a half observing 13 fire stations in a major American city, left unnamed to protect the firefighters’ privacy. The researchers found that the companies who planned their meals together, cooked together and ate together performed twice as well on the job as those who did not, because their collaboration and co-operation were better and more seamless in what is often a life-or-death situation. The firefighters themselves believe eating together is the social glue that creates friendship, mutual trust and teamwork—the daily meal was so important members would sometimes eat twice, once at home and again at the station, because skipping the common meal was a sign of disrespect and estrangement.

Members at a WeWork co-working space in NYC; at its peak, the company had 280 locations (David 'Dee' Delgado/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Members at a WeWork co-working space in NYC; at its peak, the company had 280 locations (David ‘Dee’ Delgado/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Almost the opposite of the firefighters can be found in a new business model that has recently emerged, one that sees community itself as the commodity for sale, according to Hertz. The rise of commercial co-working spaces has seen the birth of companies such as Common­Grounds, Work.Life, Convene, Second Home—and WeWork, “which, at its peak, had more than 280 locations spread across 86 cities and four million square metres of real estate,” Hertz writes in The Lonely Century. Alongside “Ping-Pong tables, free-flowing ales on tap and micro-roasted coffee,” these businesses offer “the promise of community.” (In WeWork’s failed IPO prospectus, the word community appeared 150 times.) The company’s staircases and corridors are deliberately made too narrow for two people to pass one another easily, so that—in the words of a senior WeWork executive—“you have to take your face off your phone for a second and look at each other, probably in the eyes, and say hello.” The trouble with this, Hertz argues, is that community is not made by management fiat or layout, but by people doing things together. “It’s the difference between ‘being together’ and ‘being alone together,’ ” she says, “between an active state and a passive one.”

WeWork’s one-and-done technological fix for lonely workers—make them look at each other—is echoed by the inevitable search for an anti-loneliness magic bullet. For almost a decade, medical researchers have investigated the possibility that loneliness could be essentially “cured” by a pill, or perhaps a nasal spray. The lonely do have lower levels of oxytocin, which may be both cause and effect of their loneliness, and an oxytocin dose could prove helpful. Alberti, who has looked at the experience of loneliness over centuries, is skeptical about treating the problem as an aspect solely of personal health. “Sometimes, yes, people are really depressed and they need biomedical help, but sometimes our emotions are there for a reason. If we medicalized loneliness, we’d be medicalizing the symptoms rather than the cause, ignoring that loneliness is about how society is structured more than about an individual’s biology.”

It’s the third factor that inspired The Lonely Century that best supports that conclusion. “I had my students speaking,” says Hertz, “and the market speaking, and then there was the electorate.” The role of loneliness and alienation in the rise of political populism, especially the contemporary world’s dominant right-wing variety, is clear to most observers. Hertz cites a major study that looked at 60,000 individuals in 17 European countries and found that people who were members of “civic associations”—volunteer groups and neighbourhood associations—were significantly less likely to vote for right-wing populist parties than people who were not. The fewer social ties we have, the economist concluded, the more isolated we feel, the less trust we extend and “the more appealing we may find the exclusionary and divisive form of community that populists peddle.”

And community is definitely on offer. Populist parties, understanding the feelings of loss—of community, income and, perhaps most important, social standing—that have developed in the wake of deindustrialization, promise restoration and belonging. Hertz’s analysis of a Trump rally—“more akin to the theatrics and fandom of a World Wrestling Entertainment event” than to a traditional political rally—fits neatly with her interviews with European populists, who describe meetings featuring singalongs and families holding balloons. (In addition, Trump always speaks in the royal “we,” not to bind himself to God but to his audience, even when he obviously doesn’t mean it, as when he asserted “we are going to walk down to the Capitol” on Jan. 6.)

Right-wing populists also provide clear-cut, in-group/out-group divisions—who is worthy of inclusion and who is not. There is immense appeal for the lonely in that, Hertz and Bader agree, because they are relieved to be allowed into any group and because their loneliness has already had their brains’ “threat assessment” on high alert. A solitary mouse, isolated for four weeks or longer by curious scientists, will turn brutally and immediately on a newcomer introduced to his cage. Lonely mice and lonely men both turn on one another.

What to do about our frayed communities and lonely selves, nasal spray notwithstanding, has no easy answers. Hertz and other researchers know there are powerful economic currents dragging us where we are, and many good reasons—from abusive families to censorious neighbours—why so many people choose to live alone, whatever the long-term effects may be. Hertz is remarkably even-handed in her discussion of why we live the way we do and the changes—such as taxing internet giants like Amazon to pay for government support for local firms—needed to build the communities we want. Lasting solutions, however, will require awareness and deliberate action from governments, businesses and citizens. And cuddle-yearning Carl, disturbing as his story is, may be pointing us in the right direction. Massage therapy, Alberti says, is one of the few physical treatments proven to alleviate loneliness. Touch, the first and most powerful of human senses, so absent during the pandemic, will be part of the road home.

This article appears in print in the March 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The loneliness economy.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.