Terra solitarius – the true cost of young peoples’ loneliness

Feb 22, 2024
Individuality concept, birds on a wire, alone against mass

We’re sleepwalking toward social catastrophe. Perhaps we’re there already – terra solitarius. Almost anywhere you care to look – research findings, news reports, general social chatter – all signs point in the same direction: a society free-falling into mass disconnection, loneliness and isolation. The word epidemic is often used to describe this situation. It’s a phenomenon sweeping over many rich, western nations.

Despite all the public concern, loneliness trends continue to spike in Australia, especially among the young. It’s as if they’re stuck in an ugly reality of vacuous promises and unfulfilled expectations. Meanwhile, the sources that have contributed to this malaise remain firmly in place. Although valiant attempts have been made by communities and organisations across the country to rein in social misery, there’s no immediate antidote. Soul sickness abounds.

In the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey we see many of the telltale signs of human discontent. Funded by the Australian Government and overseen by researchers from the Melbourne Institute, the survey is described as a “household-based panel study that collects valuable information about economic and personal wellbeing, labour market dynamics and family life. It aims to tell the stories of the same group of Australians over the course of their lives”.

In total, 17,000 individuals across age groups are included in the annual survey which began in 2001. Around 2,500 young people aged between 15-24 years of age were included in the study. The fact that participants are tracked over their lifetimes means that we get a pretty clear picture of how Australian society is changing, particularly at a deep emotional level. I was drawn to Chapter 9 of the report that deals with the vexed question of loneliness: the awful felt sense of unwanted detachment from social life and meaningful human connection.

It appears that such feelings are becoming more prevalent among young people.

The report notes that: “Prior to 2008, those aged 15 to 24 tended to have amongst the lowest rates of loneliness. Since around 2008, however, the proportion of those aged 15 to 24 who are lonely has steadily increased over time, accelerating further in 2015. Between 2019 and 2020 loneliness increased sharply, arguably in part because of the pandemic. In 2001 about 18.5% of the 15 to 24 age group were classified as being lonely; in 2020”. “Mean loneliness” the report adds, “is highest among younger Australians aged 15 to 24” while “average loneliness is lowest among the 65 and older group”.

A lot of factors complicate this picture, including gender, physical and mental health status, educational attainment, employment status, one’s postcode, level of social contact, and whether a person is disabled, Indigenous, and/or living alone. Nonetheless, the prevailing trend is clear; to repeat: “…loneliness has been increasing substantially among the 15 to 24 group in recent years relative to older age groups…”. The HILDA findings draw a troubling picture of growing social misery among young people that echoes similar results found in many other studies over recent years.

So, what are the causes of all this? Obviously, there’s no single explanation. But there are a number of macro and micro clues we might consider. Changing structural conditions have had an enormous impact on the lived experiences of young people. As reported by the Productivity Commission in 2020, the real incomes for 15–24-year-olds have fallen since 2008, while those for the over-65s have doubled since 2000. Stagnant real wages are to blame for this situation owing, in part, to oversupply of workers and fewer well-paid jobs. Over the past three years, the so-called ‘cost of living’ crisis has impacted disproportionality on young people who continue to find it difficult to make ends meet.

But there’s more to this story. As James Davies points out in Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created our Mental Health Crisis, the values propagated under neoliberal ideology since the late 1970s have had a profound effect on today’s young people, the vast majority of whom have lived under no other system. The promotion of material values, competitiveness and ‘self-responsibility’ as markers of accomplishment and self-worth have engendered particular personal yardsticks that invite self-criticism, especially when status symbols and goals go unrealised.

The ability of young people to participate in this competitive milieu has, for many, been stymied by precarious employment, low levels of remuneration and the growing levels of debt. Housing affordability has added to the debt burden, with homes – rental or otherwise – often well beyond the reach of the majority of young people who are now paying more than ever to secure a roof over their heads. Many remain long-term in their family homes.

One of the main drivers of social misery among this cohort is the convoluted world of social media. Evidence bears out that the socio-cultural symbols dangled before young people via this medium, the routinised practice of comparing and contrasting oneself with others online, the illusion of hyperconnectivity and absence of face-to-face, empathic relationships, means that anxiety and depression often follow. The fact too that isolated living arrangements encourage more screen-based activities only compounds the social misery increasingly evident among this cohort.

But there are other compounding disillusionments to consider: the existential threats posed by the climate emergency, the spectre of nuclear war, the rise of ethno-nationalism, authoritarianism, and the general distrust of democratic institutions and political elites. All of which invite despondency.

Put simply, disconnection and loneliness are epiphenomena that reflect much that is awry in the world, a world in the midst of its own human-induced ruins. The spiritual malaise experienced by young people in wealthy western societies, sheds light on the systems under which we live – the ideologies, institutions, values and beliefs that constitute the hegemonic order. In a society founded on reductivist material values, illusion, spectacle, false promises, and disconnection from nature, ourselves and others, is it any wonder that there’s such pervasive human misery?

Contemplation of what brings human contentedness is often dismissed as ‘new ageism’, or worse. Yet it is only by going ‘upstream’ to look at the sources of our collective misery that we can begin the task of healing and renewal. Changes to human consciousness that embrace ecological, regenerative and Indigenous-inspired ways of being open the window to new possibilities crafted amid the ruins. Despite disenchantment with the world as it is, young people have frequently inspired and led the conversations we need to have about how we experience the world, the values we have internalised, and the systems under which we live – and, above all, how we can bring about systemic and personal change. That’s a good place to start.

We’re at a point in human history where we face the prospect of self-destruction. If we’re to respond to the extreme challenges presented by biospheric change then we’ll need to build close, connected, resilient communities. Loneliness works against this; it also allows for the emergence, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, of authoritarian regimes which thrive in de-collectivised societies.

Loneliness then, is more than a spiritual malaise. It has far-reaching political consequences.

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