Loneliness is an unavoidable part of the human experience. It is inevitable that at one time or another, we will all stare down the dark abyss of loneliness. Tom Hanks once said, “Everybody has something that chews them up and, for me, that thing was always loneliness.” This said by a mega star who has been married most of his adult life and who can’t appear in public without being accosted by adoring fans.
John Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, has been studying loneliness for more than 20 years and says that the absence of social connection triggers the same primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst, and physical pain. He also dispels the myth that lonely or isolated individuals are lonely because they are socially awkward. Rather, Cacioppo believes the one single cause of chronic loneliness is that we no longer have access to family and community roots that generations before us had.
Loneliness affects people of all ages and backgrounds, married and single, but it can be particularly debilitating for middle-aged singles. Building a social structure outside of family can be difficult and, like a tween, middle-aged singles don’t neatly fit into any one group. Too old for clubbing and Tender and too young for senior citizens groups, singles in their 50s may also struggle with empty nests, aging parents, or worse, have no extended family support at all, having lost parents or moved away from home years ago for careers.
The elixir of online dating isn’t a particularly palatable prescription to meeting friends or potential mates for those in their 50s and beyond. Older singles can’t trade on their looks and it can be difficult to get others to read their profiles or show interest. Meetup groups can also be tricky. Most Meetup groups are found in large metropolitan areas and many of the groups are for young professionals in their 30s. Groups that do cater to older people often meet in the middle of the day, which is totally not viable for singles in their 50s who must work to support themselves.
Unless you happened to be one of the earlier boomers who landed a career in technology, medicine, or science, you are also not likely to be in the best financial place. Particularly hard hit are men in blue collar jobs and women employed in traditional pink collar jobs where real wages have stagnated since 2008. Those of us in our 50s are really Generation Jonesers, meaning we missed the high tide of a strong economy older boomers surfed home on. NAFTA and GATT were already eroding our chances to finish strong.
The potential to change careers has vanished for this demographic despite the fact that they may have 20 working years still ahead of them. They can’t afford to start another entry-level position in a new field because, unlike the young, they don’t have the option of becoming a basement dweller in a parent’s home until they can earn enough to support themselves. There’s also no other household wage earner to take up the slack while they build their second act. It’s a difficult position to be in—and it’s lonely.
So how prevalent is loneliness? A study by AARP of adults 45 and older showed that 35% of adults scored as lonely and 45% of those had long-term loneliness, a period defined as six or more years. In other words, it’s every single person’s worst nightmare: We are going to die alone.
Vivek Murthy said in an article published in the Harvard Business Review that during his tenure as Surgeon General he found loneliness to be the root cause of most health issues: “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” And it is well documented that the lack of interpersonal relationships and social connection do have devastating health and mental consequences, so much so that nonprofit groups and government studies have sprung up to study the issue.
In survey after survey, respondents of all ages said that love, family, and physical connection to other people trumps wealth or power on the happiness scales. Yet, both in Britain and in the United States, more adults than ever live alone and have zero personal connections. Roughly 1 out of 3 people over 65 live alone and report having no personal confidantes.
Generational divorce, substance abuse, and economic devastation have wreaked real and psychological damage on family relationships. Parents and children alike can be survivors of great emotional pain, often resulting in rocky, toxic relationships or estrangement. The pain of being left out of the lives of children and grandchildren compound the loneliness problem. This wasn’t, after all, how it was suppose to end.
It also doesn’t help that American culture does not value older adults. The United States in particular is a youth-centric culture. Advertising, marketing, media, and fashion are all aimed at the young. Marketers view young adults who are entering their most lucrative earning years as the ultimate prize to capture, and rightly so. From home buying to brand loyalty, millennials are now the sought-after consumer because they are hitting their peak earning years. Ironically, the vast market of aged 50 to 60 working consumers is largely ignored, that is unless marketers want to sell them Viagra or costly anti-aging remedies.
Having a purpose in life that paints our days with meaning is important to the human psyche. Humans are tribal beings. Left adrift with no tribe to care for or be cared for, leaves many in their 50s in a deep pit of despair and vulnerable to health and psychological problems. This invisible chastisement of loneliness affects not only those suffering from acute isolation, but future generations as well. Millennials and employers acutely need middle-aged people.
But loneliness doesn’t just plague older single adults. The spiritual vacuum and shaky familia relationships that have resulted from relentless cultural experimentation over the last 50 years is a peculiarly western problem that must be addressed if we are to remain a healthy, productive society. Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe, says that our modern way of living has cost us and goes so far as to argue that people in Britain would rather be in war than to be alone.
Young adults who move out of the home to far away cities in search of a career can also find themselves dreadfully alone. They may sit in coffee houses together, but they are buried in their phones or computers, completely isolated. In a report by the Mental Health Foundation, Chief Executive Dr. Andrew McCulloch says, “We have data that suggests people’s social networks have gotten smaller and families are not providing the same level of social context they may have done 50 years ago. It’s not because they are bad or uncaring families, but it’s to do with geographical distance, marriage breakdown, multiple caring responsibilities and longer working hours.”
So although I may be lonely myself, it appears I am not alone. And in a perverse way, this information makes me feel less lonely. It would be a modern miracle to see the fractured families of the west move back from the precipice of annihilation, but it will first take a historical shift in cultural thinking. Arnold Toynbee in his book, A Study of History, believes that human civilizations at their zenith suffer from an incurable schism in the soul, and his life’s work explores the symptoms and causes of civilizations in disintegration, one such characteristic being the narcissism of individuality. In our postmodern, capitalist search for a Utopian society, we have failed to recognize that, despite our great achievements as a race, we remain tribal to our core.
Finding a way to remain in a tribe then, may be crucial to our survival. One such way to stay connected is moving in with family members or opting for community living. According to a report by the Community Associations Institute, an estimated 69 million Americans—21.3% of the U.S. population in 2016—lived in common-interest communities, including homeowners associations, condominium communities, and cooperatives.
A Pew Research report shows that a reboot of multigenerational living is also trending. According to Pew, a record 60.6 million Americans—almost one in five–lived in multigenerational households in 2014, defined by Pew as a having two or more adult generations or grandparents and grandchildren. This is about a 30% increase in just seven years; in 2007 there were 46.5 million people living in multigenerational households.
Not only do older adults benefit by staying socially connected in multigenerational arrangements, it eases the economic burden for millennials staggering under the weight of student debt. Sharing expenses is a boon to both older millennials, who often have postponed or given up on buying a home of their own, and struggling single midlifers trapped in low wage, dead-end jobs.
As a single person in my 50s, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not going to find my tribe in the rural outskirts of a Southern state and that I will be better off psychologically and emotionally living near my son, now grown and living in Alexandria, Virginia. Once a beltway dweller who couldn’t wait to leave the big city for rural life, I now find that pastoral living as a single adult is lonely and job prospects are bleak.
There is only one cure for the cancer of loneliness and that is to find connection. If we are to survive and thrive in an artificial intelligent future where our jobs and our social connections may one day be outsourced to robots, we must first restore our most basic connection to community by embracing tribal living and letting go of the lie that to be completely independent of others is the highest of cultural achievement.