Peter Franklin

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


Loneliness is something we associate with old age.

In a previous article, I mentioned a series of graphs – based on the American Time Use Survey – which shows the number of hours the average American spends each day with different categories of people, for instance, their friends, partners, co-workers and so on. The final graph is for time they spend alone.

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This last measure is at its lowest level in childhood. It hits a minor peak in early adulthood, then dips a bit as people start jobs, form stable relationships and have children of their own. In middle age, however, the line turns upward and keeps climbing as the impact of divorce, retirement, bereavement and infirmity sever the links that keep people together. Only death interrupts the inexorable upward trend (after which, one way or another, you’ll never be alone again).

Of course, solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Indeed, as Brian Resnick reports for Vox, those most likely to say they feel lonely are not who one might expect:

“Today, members of the millennial generation are ages 23 to 38. These ought to be prime years of careers taking off and starting families, before joints really begin to ache. Yet as a recent poll and some corresponding research indicate, there’s something missing for many in this generation: companionship.

“A recent poll from YouGov, a polling firm and market research company, found that 30 percent of millennials say they feel lonely. This is the highest percentage of all the generations surveyed.”

As Resnick reminds us, the Millennial generation is now composed of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings. It’s a phase in life in which time spent with friends falls away rapidly. The responsibilities of adulthood displace the easy companionship of one’s youth – and suddenly life seems like you alone against the world.

Was ever thus? Resnick mentions a study from 1990 which found that loneliness was highest among the young adults of that era. And yet, returning to the recent YouGov poll, there are hints that the Millennials have it especially bad:

“22 percent of millennials in the poll said they had zero friends. Twenty-seven percent said they had ‘no close friends,’ 30 percent said they have ‘no best friends’…

“In comparison, just 16 percent of Gen Xers and 9 percent of baby boomers say they have no friends.”

As the internet meme has it, ‘the miracle that no one talks about is that Jesus had 12 close friends in his thirties’.

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One might have thought that the social media age would have made it easier to make and keep friends. Perhaps it has for some people, but as tends to be the way with digital, the rewards are unequally distributed. Social media amplifies the advantages that the most socially adept and superficially attractive individuals already possess. The competition for peer group popularity is further sharpened by the fact that ‘friend’ and ‘follower’ counts have become monetisable commodities.

In a 2015 essay on friendship for The Atlantic, Julie Beck points out another double-edged effect of social media:

“Social media makes it possible to maintain more friendships, but more shallowly. And it can also keep relationships on life support that would (and maybe should) otherwise have died out.”

This is an under-appreciated point. In the pre-modern world most people stayed in the same place for most of the time, making friends (and enemies) that would stay in their lives until the grim reaper intervened. With the coming of modernity, life became more complex, more mobile – people moving on from one social context to another, making new friends, but then losing touch. In the absence of proximity, it took a real effort to maintain a friendship over time and distance.

Not anymore. Our lives are as complicated as ever, but for digital natives, staying ‘in touch’ has become much easier – in fact, practically automatic. These may be the flimsiest of relationships, but a life lived in part through social media is cluttered with these online revenants. “Auld acquaintance” that would have once been “forgot and never brought to mind”, now lingers on, scrabbling for attention.

No human capacity is unlimited – and that includes our capacity for friendship. I wonder if social media isn’t imposing a parasitic load on our social lives and getting in the way of maintaining real friendship, which gets harder as one gets older.

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Of course, it can’t all be blamed on technology. Friendship requires proximity and continuity in the real world – and modern life has many ways of disrupting that. For instance, there’s the regular upheaval of moving from job to job, city to city, country to country in search of economic opportunity. Then there’s the increasing numbers of people who stay single and/or childless – either later into life than previous generations or permanently. This has been identified as the cause of the so-called ‘sex recession’ among Millennials; but as well inhibiting romantic and family relationships, there is the loss of the platonic friendships that depend on the wider connections forged when you settle down and have children.

It would be nice to think that this is all a matter of choice – and that such freedom provides opportunities for different kinds of friendship and social connection. As the old saying goes, you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives.

Then again, the reality may be that friendship and freedom are in tension – and that, in some way, one needs to be stuck in a situation with others to connect to them. Biology does the trick when it comes to family, but to nurture friendship in today’s world of unlimited choice, we need to commit ourselves to enduring communities and institutions.

These are increasingly thin on the ground – especially for a generation that’s been taught to mock and distrust them.

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