Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 27 May 2024

THE LONELY CROWD

How to fix America’s loneliness crisis


Rana Foroohar rana.foroohar@ft.com · 27 May 2024


There are plenty of things Americans disagree on but one shared concern is loneliness. According to a 2024 American Psychiatric Association survey, around 30 per cent of those aged 18-34 feel lonely several times a week. This builds on an earlier Harvard University study, done in the midst of the pandemic, which found that 36 per cent of Americans reported being lonely “almost all the time”. While Democrats were more likely to say so than Republicans, the study showed that the epidemic cut across political, economic, social, cultural, race and gender lines.

The reasons for this crisis are myriad. Despite America’s robust recovery, many struggle with a loss of economic control in a world in which hard work doesn’t bring security or community (something academic Robert Putnam first brought to light in his 2000 book Bowling Alone).

Then there’s frustration over the pace of technological change (particularly its effects on children), and exhaustion with a culture focused mainly on consumption. All of this has led to what Democratic senator Chris Murphy has called a “spiritual unspooling”, in which many people feel disconnected and abandoned by society and its leaders.

These issues have become a bipartisan rallying cry for Murphy and Utah’s Republican governor Spencer Cox, who recently teamed up on a cross-country listening tour to explore the types of ideas and legislation that might help combat America’s loneliness problem and its fallout, which ranges from higher healthcare costs to a rise in political extremism. As Hannah Arendt laid out in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, isolation and loneliness are the preconditions for tyranny, an observation that may come full circle in the US this November.

While Americans are politically divided, people in places as far flung as Utah, North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington share “a sense of abandonment”, Murphy told me, “and even humiliation”, as power has shifted to a smaller number of geographic places, people and companies over the past couple of decades in particular. (This perception is backed up by data — corporate concentration is at record highs, and socio-economic outcomes vary wildly depending on the zip code in which Americans are born.

It’s perhaps no surprise that many areas of recent bipartisan co-operation — from trade and tariffs to infrastructure spending to limits on foreign ownership of social media — have been about trying to address a sense of economic and social vulnerability. Yet most happiness research shows that after a certain middle-class financial security threshold is passed, the good life tends to correlate instead with relationships — family, friends and community.

The problem is that in our culture of high-speed digital capitalism and overwork, there is neither enough time nor, for many, enough money to provide the security to achieve that. That’s one of the reasons labour activists such as Shawn Fain are starting to push for a four-day work week as a way for employees to benefit from some of the huge corporate profit gains of the past several years.

Murphy, who has also advocated more free time for workers, points out that this is an idea with support on both the left and right. Politicos as divergent as venture capitalist Blake Masters and liberal senator Bernie Sanders have argued that one income should be enough to support a family of four, and allow participation in civic life. There is increasing cross-aisle consensus about things such as raising the minimum wage, social media regulation and, to a certain extent, antitrust action. All these fall within the realm of policies that address some of the root causes of loneliness, from economic insecurity and social isolation, to lack of personal agency.

Murphy and Cox plan to publish some of their observations and policy recommendations in an upcoming report on “restoring the value of common good to American life”. Needless to say, implementation will be place-specific. While the good life might mean more church time in red states and more community volunteering or PTA involvement in blue, the point is the same — the balance between individualism and collectivism in the US has become too skewed towards the former.

This, as much as inflation or immigration or any other higher profile election issue, may be behind our national pessimism, even amid the broadest and fastest economic recovery in the rich world.

I’m all for their effort, and I think that it’s incredibly smart politics for a progressive such as Murphy in particular to use words like “spirituality”. The left talks a lot about economic challenges but rarely connects to the spiritual in a country where the majority of people believe in God.

Likewise, as progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz points out in his new book The Road to Freedom: Economics and the Good Society, freedom is something that progressives need to incorporate into their messaging. The US is, after all, about the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. While this is language associated more with Republicans, there’s no reason that the left can’t talk about the “freedom” to breathe clean air or live in decent housing.

A more collaborative conversation about these problems could itself help alleviate some national loneliness.

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