The first time ‘Ms N’ shoplifted was when she was 67 years old.
‘I was alone every day and feeling very lonely,’ she told Bloomberg during her third stint in jail. ‘I wandered into a bookstore in town and stole a paperback novel. I was caught, taken to a police station, and questioned.’
Although Ms N was financially secure and had a husband, two children and six grandchildren the solitude of her day-to-day life had become too much. In prison she claims she didn’t feel lonely.
Japan is known as the world’s oldest society – over 75s account for over 15 per cent of the population. And a perhaps unexpected proportion of them are ending up behind bars. Almost one in five women in Japanese prisons is a senior, often having been convicted for things like shoplifting.
Writer Yuki Shingo has documented some of their stories and found that for those without social networks, breaking into a house can be a win-win. Unlike Ms N, many turn to stealing due to financial struggles and if they don’t get caught, they can afford to eat. If they’re arrested, they ‘get to live with many others in the same boat’.
Social isolation is not only the preserve of the elderly. By November 2020, Japan’s government recognized something was going awry after it released data showing that the number of people who had died by suicide in October 2020 alone surpassed the death toll caused by Covid-19 over 10 months that same year. Women under 40 who lived alone were over-represented in these figures. A YouGov poll surveying the US and UK in 2019 found that 30 per cent of millennials – those aged 26 to 41 – felt lonely. Even more worryingly, 27 per cent of this group admitted to having no ‘close friends’ at all.
Loneliness, according to US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, ‘is the difference between the relationships we want, and the relationships we have’. Much like stale dating advice – join a sports club, go to a bar, pick up a hobby – the common prescription for this social ill seems to be: ‘put yourself out there’ and scramble together what community you can... on your own.
The effect of social isolation can also take its toll on the body. In essence, when chronically lonely, our bodies begin to experience inflammation, a kind of ‘high-alert mode’ for the nervous system. Living in this mode for too long can lead to cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases – contributing to the recent medical view that loneliness creates a risk similar of 15 smoked cigarettes per day.
As writer Apoorva Tadepalli explains in The Atlantic, isolation can also impact our behaviour: ‘“Hypervigilance” experienced by lonely people can lead to them perceiving snubs and exclusion where none exist. Loneliness foments more loneliness.’ With few people around to practice conversation, anxiety can increase, along with feelings of social abandonment. Hypervigilance also, inevitably, can make it harder to socialize.
When chronic, this set of mental states, according to psychiatrist Freida Fromm-Reichmann, can lead to a reduced hope that ‘there may be interpersonal relationships in one’s future life’. If left to fester, feelings of isolation can leave us at risk of psychosis. Perhaps this is why, as Reichmann explains, ‘it is a fear so great, that even naming it is frightening.’ Through her work Fromm-Reichmann has encountered patients who put pen to paper to illustrate their experience. One sufferer of schizophrenia wrote: ‘No one comes near here morning or night. The desolate grasses grow out of sight. Only a wild hare strays, then is gone. The landlord is silence. The tenant is drawn.’
To be sure, feeling lonely from time to time is part of the human experience, but chronic loneliness appears to be on the rise. In the US, a meta-analysis of research on perceived social isolation found that 11-17 per cent of people felt lonely in the 1970s, compared to over 40 per cent of middle-aged and older adults four decades later.
According to political scientist Robert Putnam, the networks we once relied on to commune and thus foster friendships have been breaking down for the past 50 years. For his book, Bowling Alone, Putnam analyzed the membership of trade unions, churches, youth clubs, sports societies and other groups in the US and found that from the 1970s onwards, ‘silently, without warning, that tide [of civic participation] reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current’.
The culprits for this decline are multiple. Writing in Jacobin, Anton Jäger states that in the US, the forces of globalization and deindustrialization that have ramped up since the 1980s have ejected people not just ‘out of the factories, but out of the public arena itself’.
It becomes harder to find places to gather as accessible ‘third spaces’ disappear. A concept coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, these are places to meet that are not home or work: cafes, clubs, bars, churches, barbers, leisure centres, libraries. Oldenburg argued that these were once the anchors of community, places where relationships began, spontaneous conversations took place, inspiration for art flourished – and that the disappearance of these places was having a dramatic impact on social connectedness.
In the UK, libraries, public swimming pools and youth clubs were among the first to be cut from public subsidy after the 2008 financial crash. An investigation by politician Siân Berry found that between 2011 and 2019 the number of youth clubs in London alone halved. Meanwhile, violent behaviour among young people in the city has been rising with researchers at the Royal London Hospital finding that children under 16 were most likely to be stabbed in the two hours after school – as The Guardian reported, ‘a time when youth clubs would normally be at their busiest’.
Gentrification also has an impact on the loss of more informal places to meet. Long-treasured venues for live music and clubbing are shut down by increasing rents and objections from neighbours who wish for quieter cities.
Anti-loitering, anti-communing sentiment has become the new normal in many cities.
It struck me when I ambled along a Brooklyn sidewalk a few summers ago – I was genuinely surprised at how many families and neighbours were gathered together on stoops, watching people go by, hooking up sound systems, having a natter. I had become so used to London’s increasingly hostile urban planning, designed to expel houseless people from public space, with private security buzzing around eager to shoo people on. Even the architecture seemed to be designed to stem interaction: the ubiquity of sloped Camden benches, fit only for leaning on, designed to repel skateboarders; sonic devices employed to irritate teenagers out from the public realm – many of these seemingly benign details have led to a whole cross-section of people to feel unwelcome outside the parameters of their homes.
Indeed the growth of neighbourhood forums such as Nextdoor can often reflect the hostilities that have emerged in real public spaces. Originally intended as a virtual notice board to report missing pets or overflowing garbage in the local area, the website has a significant membership of users that are what AP reporter Barbara Ortutay calls ‘paranoid neighbours spying on each other’, often complaining about problems that could be resolved by real-life conversations. At worst, its users have promoted open racial profiling and police calls on residents and passers by.
Thankfully there are some hopeful shoots of positive city planning that encourage social interaction, including the designation of car-free zones. Barcelona’s plan for 503 ‘superblocks’, pedestrianized zones aimed to rejig the pace of local life, could be a boon to wellbeing. Economist Noreena Hertz writes that this urban model makes people ‘less likely to retreat into buildings, away from the public realm, and more likely to engage with each other’.
Rise and grind
With more than half the world’s population now living in urban areas, the quickened pace of life, intensification of work and rising cost of renting has resulted in longer commuting times and undoubtedly cut into the time left to spend with loved ones. The ability to ‘switch off’, be present, and attend to the emotional needs of our loved ones, and ourselves, is crucial to maintaining our relationships.
A 2011 OECD study found that rural women in India and Kazakhstan, disproportionately bogged down with household chores, lose out the most when it comes to free time. Speaking about the time theft brought on by labour intensification in the neoliberal era, author Édouard Louis told Novara Media: ‘I grew up in a de-industrialized village in France, where there were not many jobs. People were moneyless. When you suffer that much, it’s kind of difficult to create room for love in your life.’ Attitudes to vacation allowances across the world mirror this. In the US, many are afraid to take time off, for fear of replacement or destitution – even high earners. Twitter’s CEO Elon Musk – head of the internet’s public square no less – is building bedrooms for workers at Twitter HQ. We must reject this logic wholesale.
Fortunately, there are some moves in the other direction. As of 2023, 56 firms in the UK have provisionally adopted the four-day work week. Results show that, yes, productivity has not suffered, but perhaps this is not its primary appeal. Life is for the living, as writer Meagan Day argues in Jacobin. More free time for connecting with others is at the heart of this vision. She writes: ‘The capitalists won’t like it, but they didn’t like the weekend either. The weekend was won by a powerful movement of working people asserting that the time of their lives should belong to them, not to those who would wring them dry for profit.’
It’s easy to see why many of us are increasingly leaning on our devices for quick doses of low-effort human contact. There’s a common joke among millennials and members of Generation Z that they consume five different forms of social media at once to prevent a thought from occurring. An over-reliance on digital spaces following the pandemic has, according to Hertz, fragmented ‘our attention, creating a splintered self, caught between the physical reality of an intimate in-person conversation and the tens, maybe even hundreds, of text and image-based conversations happening simultaneously on our screens.’
She compares this digital de-socializing to the calculator’s impact on our mental arithmetic. There’s no question that most social media platforms can be a hostile space for a person of any age to navigate. The algorithm favours engaging with others in an antagonistic manner, while in real life, we find ourselves extending more good faith to strangers and interlocutors. The mismatch between our digital and real-life selves can be stark, and a real impediment to empathy.
At the same time, our reliance on platforms does not seem to be going anywhere. While AI companions and robots have been depressingly touted as ways to fill the gaps with elderly social care, cyberfeminists argue that it’s important not to cede all ground to Silicon Valley when it comes to the internet’s potential to connect movements. Web designer and educator Mindy Seu emphasizes how we mustn’t abandon the project of technology to the tech giants: ‘The internet is not only a network of cables, servers, and computers. It is an environment that shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants and their use.’
For all of the miseries of the lockdown periods, moving political organizing online reallocated energy and resources to bringing in those who aren’t usually in the room. As disability justice scholar Shayda Kafai writes: ‘For so many of us, our beds, cars, and homes are not temporary, transitional places we inhabit for a few hours. Instead, they are the places that tether us; they are our connection to our communities. Our computers and our phones become the crip-centric liberated zones that ensure that we continue to exist in community with one another when we are too tired, too sick, and too depressed to leave.’
Nowhere is the yearning for social connection more evident than matters of the heart. Online dating has gradually become the way people meet romantic partners – in particular, mobile apps such as Tinder, Hinge and Grinder. The loss of physical spaces has led to what Swedish sociologist Marie Bergström calls ‘context collapse’. The online, anonymous nature of matching with someone means we rarely have mutual friends in common, thus little accountability against which to discourage acts such as ‘ghosting’. Researchers have also found that the majority of dating apps – most of which are owned by the megafirm Match Group – are governed by an algorithm that favours a law of averages. If a popular user swipes ‘yes’ on you, it boosts your profile above the rest.
Users have also found that when they tailor their profiles to reflect their idiosyncratic and eccentric personalities, they receive less matches. But when they follow boilerplate advice – to include a picture of a pet, or their grandparent, for example – they collect more matches. We are encouraged to ‘shop for people’, sifting through an endless inventory of possibilities. For the Land of Giants, an investigative podcast that delves into the origins and contemporary moment of online dating, researchers found that apps had become an emotional crutch, and some users reported no longer being able to read signals of interest outside of the parameters of a Tinder date.
A recent New York Times op-ed really captured the despondent mood of the moment. Culture writer Magdalene J Taylor advised readers to have as much sex as they can, as pleasurably as they can, to combat loneliness. Indeed, much contemporary research on the burgeoning problem makes a similar rhetorical error, assuming that less sex, or celibacy, is akin to alienation. Or that a lot of it is a grand boost to intimacy.
It could be, but it needn’t be. Intimacy is a much more elusive thing; paying more attention to who we connect with, and how we connect with them, feels like a surer way toward it than a perfunctory one-night stand. Paler, quick-fix versions of intimacy are likely to grant us mixed results – whether it be the growth of platonic intimacy services, or the likes of sophisticated AI companions spearheaded by Replika, the company whose owner developed the idea based on text messages with their deceased best friend.
Thinking back to moments of deep connectedness I’ve experienced – where a tender conversation filled with hearty belly laughs has made the room melt away, cocooning the other person and myself into a strange, wonderful bubble of safety, intimacy and slowness – initially, those experiences felt incommunicable, spontaneous.
But on further reflection, it is free time, freedom from stress, mutual patience and the willingness to comb through the details of each other's lives with curiosity that has made those moments possible. Big Tech’s attempt to replicate this phenomenon is likely to have mixed results, and why shouldn’t it? We are unpredictable, ‘boisterous beings’, that deserve to be known.
In the UK, the distress helpline run by the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. International suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the suicide rate in Japan was higher than the Covid-19 death toll in 2021. In fact, the death toll by suicide in October 2020 alone surpassed that of Covid-19 from January 2020 to October 2020.
- Bapu Trust: A grassroots mental health group in India
- Coalition to End Social Isolation: A US-wide advocacy campaign to end social isolation.
- Friends for Good: An Australian chatline for people of all ages.
- The Silver Line: A 24-hour helpline for older people in the UK.
- The Mix: A crisis line for under-25s.
- Widowed and Young: A bereavement support group for anyone who’s lost a partner before their 51st birthday.
- Cyberfeminism Index: A compendium of resources collating how marginalized people have used tech for connection since the 1980s.
- Dreams of a Life: A narrative documentary about the life of Joyce Carol Vincent, whose death triggered national discussions about social isolation in the UK.
- mentalhellth.xyz: A newsletter about mental health under neoliberalism.
- The Marginalian: A literary newsletter on love, friendship, mind and creativity.
- The ‘sexual marketplace’: Romance writer Annie Lord speaks to Novara Media about modern dating.
- Sinsinvalid: A disability-justice performance project.
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