SOCIAL FABRIC

Age of Alienation: Young people are facing a loneliness epidemic

The epidemic of loneliness among young people, exacerbated by the pandemic – and what ministers can do to give young people back a sense of belonging.
James Blagden, Will Tanner, Fjolla Krasniqi
July 8, 2021
Age of Alienation: Young people are facing a loneliness epidemic
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This report reveals that Britain’s fraying social fabric is not just geographic in nature but generational, with each new cohort of young people less interwoven with, and supported by, wider society than the one before it.

Lord O’Shaughnessy

Young people are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness

We explore who is driving community decline and exposes a startling insight – that the fraying of Britain’s social fabric may be in large part a generational problem. Young people appear to be suffering from what can only be described as a collapse in community and epidemic of loneliness, and this crisis of belonging is getting worse over time. Combining analysis of longitudinal surveys with our own polling, we find that:

  • Young people appear to be around half as likely to say they think other people are trustworthy as they were sixty years ago, with 56% of young people saying that other people could be generally trusted in 1959 compared to 30% today. This represents nearly double the rate of decline of older groups, and there is evidence to suggest that this may be particularly impacted by the pandemic.
  • 18-24 year-olds are more likely to distrust their neighbours (48%) than trust them (35%), and three times more likely to distrust their neighbours than people over the age of 65 years old (15%). Young people are also half as likely to speak to neighbours, and a third less likely to borrow or exchange favours from them, as they were in 1998.
  • Most worryingly of all, young people’s interpersonal social networks appear to be narrowing, contributing to a feeling of social isolation. Around one in five 18-34 year-olds say that they have one or fewer close friends, three times the level in 2011/12, and older generations now typically have far more close friends than younger groups in an inversion of historical trends. This is far worse than in recent years, suggesting the pandemic may be contributing to an “epidemic of loneliness” among young people.
Polling by Stack Data Strategy

The challenge

Solutions

The proportion of under-35s saying they have just one or no close friends has trebled in 10 years, from 7% to 22% while the share with four or more has fallen from 64% to 40%.

Compared to 20 years ago, under-35s are a third as likely to say they regularly speak to neighbours and a third less likely to borrow and exchange favours with them.

Millennials and Generation Z are less likely to be members of a group or participate in group activities than previous generations were at similar ages.

The share of young people who agree that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted” has fallen twice as fast among under-35s as among over-35s in recent decades. Today just 30% of under-35s say most people are generally trustworthy, versus 40% for over-35s.

People under the age of 25 are three times more likely (48%) than people over the age of 65 years old (15%) to distrust their neighbours. Only around half (54%) of under-25s say they trust their family “completely”, compared to 80% among over-65s.

  1. Introduce national civic service to revive civic participation among young people.This would create a voluntary expectation that every 18-35 year old should do 10 days of unpaid social action each year, with time off work to do so, or undertake a paid “year of service” instead.
  2. Offer young people civic rewards to incentivise community engagement.18-35 year olds who have conducted 10 days of volunteering each year should be eligible for a partial write off of student loan debt, credits towards digital or vocational training, or a national insurance rebate.
  3. Democratise public spaces and high streets to give communities places to come together. In 2020, nearly 1 in 25 vacant high street shops had been vacant for three or more years and councils owned 100,000 empty garages. Ministers should create automatic rights for communities to take over underutilised spaces for enterprise hubs, sports clubs and charities.
  4. Give young people greater security by creating 500,000 new reduced rent homesThis would create a new class of housing – Homes for Young People – available to working tenants under the age of 40. They would have discounted rent by 10-20% below market rates for up to ten years, allowing young people to put down roots and save up towards home ownership.

The challenge

The proportion of under-35s saying they have just one or no close friends has trebled in 10 years, from 7% to 22% while the share with four or more has fallen from 64% to 40%.

Compared to 20 years ago, under-35s are a third as likely to say they regularly speak to neighbours and a third less likely to borrow and exchange favours with them.

Millennials and Generation Z are less likely to be members of a group or participate in group activities than previous generations were at similar ages.

The share of young people who agree that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted” has fallen twice as fast among under-35s as among over-35s in recent decades. Today just 30% of under-35s say most people are generally trustworthy, versus 40% for over-35s.

People under the age of 25 are three times more likely (48%) than people over the age of 65 years old (15%) to distrust their neighbours. Only around half (54%) of under-25s say they trust their family “completely”, compared to 80% among over-65s.

Solutions

  1. Introduce national civic service to revive civic participation among young people.This would create a voluntary expectation that every 18-35 year old should do 10 days of unpaid social action each year, with time off work to do so, or undertake a paid “year of service” instead.
  2. Offer young people civic rewards to incentivise community engagement.18-35 year olds who have conducted 10 days of volunteering each year should be eligible for a partial write off of student loan debt, credits towards digital or vocational training, or a national insurance rebate.
  3. Democratise public spaces and high streets to give communities places to come together. In 2020, nearly 1 in 25 vacant high street shops had been vacant for three or more years and councils owned 100,000 empty garages. Ministers should create automatic rights for communities to take over underutilised spaces for enterprise hubs, sports clubs and charities.
  4. Give young people greater security by creating 500,000 new reduced rent homesThis would create a new class of housing – Homes for Young People – available to working tenants under the age of 40. They would have discounted rent by 10-20% below market rates for up to ten years, allowing young people to put down roots and save up towards home ownership.

These figures expose what we might call a “paradox of virtue”. On the one hand, young people are ostensibly the most socially conscious generations in recent history, with more progressive views on social issues, such as inequality and the environment, than both older generations and previous generations of young people. But on the other hand, they are the easily the least socially attached to interpersonal networks or to their neighbourhood, and on most measures of social capital the gap between younger and older generations is widening, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

This suggests an enormous opportunity if we can transform the social intentions of younger generations into meaningful social action. Qualitative research for this paper reveals that young people are not detached from their communities out of choice, but through lack of opportunity, security and time. If policymakers can create meaningful routes for young people to engage, and the space and freedom to do it, we may emerge from the pandemic to a great civic revival of the kind witnessed at the beginning of the last century.

Social Fabric programme

This report is published as part of Onward’s social fabric programme, which seeks to understand the changing nature of community in different parts of the UK, and explore ways to repair the social fabric of different places in meaningful and practical ways. It is currently supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Shelter and Power to Change.

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