Are We the Loneliest Generation?

Contrary to common belief, the decline in marriage rates may be positive.

Posted Nov 19, 2019

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Are singles that lonely?
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The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece with a blaring headline: The Loneliest Generation. Its authors argue that we are in the midst of an epidemic in which people feel lonelier than ever before.

As always, the unmarried population is the usual suspect. The argument is simple: singles have no one in their lives to whom they can turn to in times of need and therefore they are lonelier than married couples.

However, the writers mix people living alone with those feeling lonely; the statistics that they cite about people feeling lonely are mostly unrelated to people living alone. While the statistics show, for example, that “one in 11 Americans age 50 and older lacks a spouse, partner or living child” based on the U.S. Census, they fail to show that these numbers relate to the “share of respondents who reported they often felt lonely” taken from the General Social Survey (8.3 percent among Baby Boomers and 5.6 percent among Generation X). The ones who reported feeling lonely might very well be married.

The authors even juxtapose the diagrams of the two surveys in one frame, as though the two are linked. In reality, the two findings are based on different populations and cannot be compared or combined together.

Singles Are Actually Very Social

A quick look at existing data reveals something that might surprise the authors of the WSJ article: single people, especially long-term single people, are the most networked and socially active individuals.

Accounting for all other variables (age, gendereducation, income, etc.), my analysis of more than 300,000 people from 31 countries shows that widowed, divorced and never-married individuals meet their friends 17, 20, and 45 percent more frequently, respectively, than their married peers. This is while those who choose to marry often fall into what researchers call a "greedy” marriage, in which couples devote most of their time to their families and cut ties with friends and relatives. This, in turn, frequently leaves them feeling lonelier than singles. 

Without a doubt, the Senate was right in organizing a hearing that is focused on the consequences of social isolation and loneliness, and British Prime Minister Theresa May deserves to be applauded in nominating a minister for loneliness affairs. However, loneliness is a separate problem, detached from singlehood. In fact, singlehood might even be the solution, as surprising as it might sound. I will get to that.  

John Cacioppo, who published Loneliness, one of the most comprehensive books on the subject, said: “Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing, but they're both stigmatized in our society... People who prefer solitude nevertheless look for relationships out of guilt—but feel even guiltier once they're in one. A happy single person is just as healthy as a happy married person.” One can see how Cacioppo's observation is accurate simply by looking at the many comments on the WSJ article. Many single readers testified that they are happy being alone.  

Singles May Be the Solution

When comparing differences in social behavior between couples in 1980 and 2000, researchers found that couples in the year 2000 were less likely than the 1980 group to participate in a broad array of social activities, including visiting friends, working on shared hobbies and going out. At the same time, the unmarried population has become more adept at building personal networks. Apparently, married individuals are those who have become increasingly exposed to the risks of loneliness and social isolation over time, not the unmarried population. In contrast, the growing single population seems to have been adapting and even flourishing in recent decades.

This means that the growing trend of people who choose to go solo might be a reason for hope, not for despair. The explanation behind this remarkable trend lies in what researchers call the “networked” individual.

Whereas the household was once the cornerstone of one’s support system, there has been a shift toward organizing one’s life in personal networking units. The role of friendship in everyday life is strengthened among singles, and the support traditionally provided by the family is transferred to social networks. Circles of support solidify the growing population of networked individuals. 

In the interviews I conducted for my book, Happy Singlehood, I have found that many singles develop strong social networks that support them in their everyday lives as well as in times of need. Phil, a 47-year-old single man from Indiana, told me: “I cast a pretty wide net of friends, I have a network of people I can see and socialize with on a regular basis.”

Sometimes, these kinds of networks were even the exact reason these singles yearned to be alone at the end of the day; when they returned home from an evening with friends, full of laughter and joy, the only thing they needed was the chance to balance that joy with some quiet time.

I asked Sarah, 44, whether she feels lonely being single. She told me about the loneliest experience she had but said that even at that time she felt at peace: "I spent 17 days in Scotland. I was alone but I wasn't lonely. There were days I had people to talk to, but I didn't always see someone on the trail. I just enjoyed being by myself." This remarkable statement might explain some studies showing a correlation between feeling alone and being single: being alone does not mean one is lonely or wants to couple up.

In a study conducted among 1,000 students, the researchers showed that the students held deep prejudices against singles, portraying them as lonely and antisocial. No wonder that if asked, some singles internalize these stereotypes and submit to them. 

However, the reality is that singles behave quite differently than the social expectations imposed on them. In one longitudinal study, over 2,000 survey participants were asked to describe the quality of their relationships with friends and family and their frequency of social meetings over the course of six years.

At the time of the first sampling, all participants were single and under age 50. By the end, the sample was divided into three groups: singles, those in a relationship less than three years, and those in a relationship for four to six years. Those who remained single spent more time with friends, family, peers, and neighbors.

There is a reason why an increasing number of people all over the world choose to go solo. In the United States, it is predicted that approximately one-quarter of young adults will never marry, and In Europe, the percentage of one-person households in several major cities has already exceeded 50 percent. There are many explanations for these numbers, but we must ask ourselves whether these singles are simply fine with being networked yet uncoupled.

It seems that if the world becomes more single-oriented, as the WSJ article’s authors rightly show, then we might actually have a reason for hope. These singles are more likely to socialize, network, and volunteer. It is really time to stop blaming singles for loneliness. 

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