One night last week I was back in New York, sitting at a small table outside a bar with one of my oldest friends. We watched the rain run off the canvas awning, and as always when we get together, exchanged a mixture of news and insults. We argued and laughed; made a few plans and made a few confessions. It got late, the rain stopped, he had to go one way and I had to go the other. Those three hours, a half dozen Jamesons, and a score of stories will have to do me for the next six months until we randomly cross paths again.
Our careers and our lives ensure he and I only see each other once or twice a year. It’s the same with my other close friends. We exchange the occasional text message or email, but rarely spend actual time together. When we do, I inevitably walk away feeling better—about the world, about life, about myself. The sensation doesn’t linger long, though, not six months long.
I am more disconnected now, from friends and family, than I have been at any other time in my life. And I am not unique. According to researchers around the world, there is an epidemic of isolation. The new normal is loneliness. This widespread shift in how and how much we interact with our community marks a profound change in our society, with surprising implications.
There is a very good chance you feel lonely, too. Statistics Canada calculates that approximately six million Canadians “live an isolated existence”. Several surveys report that up to 45 per cent of Americans, 60 per cent of Australians, and 66 per cent of the British report feeling regularly or frequently lonely.
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And it is also likely you are lonelier today than you were yesterday. As individuals, the number of close personal connections we have declines every year after university or college. And each succeeding generation is making fewer meaningful friends than the previous one. In Canada, the number of us who live alone has quadrupled since the 1950s. The number of Americans reporting they are lonely has also quadrupled over the last 40 years. A Duke University study found the number of people who have no confidants at all tripled in recent decades.
Why? As a society, we no longer live for generations in the same village. We move around the country looking for work, and when we settle, it is in a suburb where we get in our cars and drive past the neighbours we never meet. Over a quarter of the workforce now telecommutes at home alone at least occasionally, and that number is growing 10 times faster than rest of the labour market. Short-term “gig” jobs (which by some estimates make up a third of the economy now) ensure that when we do work with others, we move on before we can make friends.
There are fewer and fewer “third spaces” between work and home, like clubs or town squares, where we can socialize with a regular group of people. We are also less likely to have meaningful long-term personal relationships, opting instead to dip in and out of the dating pool on Tinder and eHarmony. In general, the Internet and the rise of social media has greatly exacerbated these trends. An evening spent pitchforking with the Twitter mob does not replace one playing cards with neighbours.
The impact of these trends is dramatic and far-reaching, if not immediately obvious. It has a significant impact on our health—loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 26 per cent. Some research suggests it is as harmful as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and is twice as deadly as obesity.
But more importantly, it also affects our society. Loneliness is actually contagious—when you withdraw from your connections, they in turn begin to feel disconnected. And, this is where it gets interesting, when people become lonelier, they feel more and more alienated and are less likely to be able to read social cues, further disrupting the community around them. What is worse, when people fail to connect, research shows they can get more insensitive and more aggressive. According to Emily White, a Canadian who has published two books on the subject, the lonelier you are the more you see other people as threatening. You even get dumber, vocabulary drops and you find it harder to focus.
When I began reading about what some are calling the “loneliness crisis,” I was surprised at its extent, and its effects. But what really struck me was the fact that the loneliest demographic tends to be older, white males. Not coincidentally, this is the segment of society that feels more alienated, and is angrier and more fearful than any other. Their rate of suicide is among the highest, and rising, while most others are falling.
And, as we have seen recently, this is also the segment of society that is most attracted to the pessimistic, isolationist, intolerant, angry, right-wing politics of Brexit, Donald Trump, or France’s Marine Le Pen. Is it possible that one of the reasons western politics has shifted so dramatically in the last decade is because white men are lonely? I admit it seems absurd, even to me as I write this, but when you go back and look at the numbers, there is a startling correlation.
What do we do with this theory? I’m not sure. But it may help us to see the politics of the Trump voter and the Rebel Media supporter differently. Much has already been written about their economic alienation, their “Hillbilly Elegy”. Maybe, in order to better understand this part of our society, we need to see them less as a voting bloc and more as individuals, isolated and disconnected.
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