Graphic by Jen Kelly

We’re All Lonely But It’s Not Our Fault

Shifting the blame of loneliness from individuals to institutions

Shifting the blame of loneliness from individuals to institutions

There’s an epidemic of loneliness in modern America. It’s a trauma encompassing political, economic and social realms. We’re all alone, but it’s not any one person’s fault.

Imagine the stereotypical millennial: they moved home after college, unable to find a job or afford a home of their own. It may sound pathetic. But maybe they’ve found the home they need.

The alternative for the millennial generation is living alone in an overpriced closet. It leaves them fragile and alone. A 2018 national survey by the healthcare provider Cigna found 46% of Americans felt alone some or all of the time. Adults aged 18-22 responded as the loneliest age group. A 2010 AARP survey had similar findings.

Lonely people are vulnerable. Alone, a small problem becomes a crisis. That crisis festers and becomes a trauma that stays with a person for life. Without a support network, a minor issue can snowball into an avalanche. Studies have linked loneliness to depression, distress, suffering, poor sleep, high blood pressure and death.

Loneliness almost feels normal in a society that sees the world in terms of the individual. Privacy can feel like success. Appearing independent is an achievement. And we see weakness in a cry for help.

We weren’t always this way. Prior to modern industry, humans often lived in close-knit communities, whether related by blood or not. Fast-forward to the 1950s, and the nuclear family emerges. There’s the working husband, the stay-at-home wife and the two or three kids. It might have been romantic then, but a 2020 article from The Atlantic by David Brooks shows this small, private family wreaked havoc on our social lives.

Jump forward 60 more years and you get the loneliness epidemic. One could criticize nuclear families for pages—read Brooks’ piece for a full account. But as they relate to loneliness, they popularized small families and mistrust of anyone outside of those families.

Small families can produce lonely individuals. Imagine a single child. Imagine their parents pass away. That child then has to live on their own, without the support of a family around them. Financial, personal or professional stresses can lead to a free-fall when you have no safety net.

Small, nuclear families disintegrate, and children are left on their own.

Youth are finding new ways to survive the aftermath of a nuclear family disaster.

The good news is we seem to be adapting. We are, in some sense, valuing extended families again. Pew Research Center found a record 64 million Americans living in multigenerational households in 2018. In 2016, Pew found the most common living arrangement for the 18-34 age group to be living with parents.

We’re also expanding families beyond biological boundaries through shared housing units and groups for single parents. These new arrangments provide a way forward that doesn’t necessitate stay-at-home wives or gender discrimination. We’re finding ways to balance our want for individual freedom with our need for a family.

Living together doesn’t necessarily make for less lonely people. We should be cautious about praising housing arrangements that can be born out of economic necessity, but research suggests many are choosing less lonely housing by choice. Living together is a good first step toward a more stable society.

Youth are finding new ways to survive the aftermath of a nuclear family disaster. Make fun of the millennial in their parents’ garage if you want. But it looks to us like they might have found shelter from modern loneliness. They’re going to be OK.

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