Loneliness in the city
Humans are social beings. However, many people don’t get much human contact; just under 4 million older people say the television is their main companion. An increasing body of literature suggests that loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience and can have genuine physical impacts. One study finds that mortality increases by 26% for those suffering from loneliness and by 35% for those living alone; and Smith and Holt-Lunstad suggest loneliness is as damaging to the health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness is partly a generational issue and reflects an ageing population, where women often outlive men. Currently around 18% of the population are over 65, up from 16% twenty years ago. Of these, there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK. Forecasts suggests the number of over 65s will be around 18.5 million in 2040. This means the number of chronically lonely people by 2040 could be around 1.7 million.
The share of over 65s is traditionally much lower in city centres. Leeds and Liverpool’s share of pensioners is currently 15%; in Birmingham it is 13% and it is even lower at 9% in Manchester. So generational loneliness in our cities is less prevalent. However, pensioner share is slowly rising in cities, making loneliness an increasing issue by 2040: in Leeds and Liverpool the share of pensioners is expected to rise to 19% by 2040.
But age is not the only cause of loneliness. Life transitions, such as moving home, changing jobs, children moving on and bereavement, can act as triggers for chronic loneliness. For example, over half of parents (52%) have had a problem with loneliness.
And the problem of loneliness may be more acute in cities. As Georg Simmel stated: ‘nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd.’ It could be argued that when you live in a big city, you are less likely to have a close-knit community where neighbours know each other and the anonymity of a city can result in a lack of trust, making it harder to connect. A 2013 survey by ComRes found that 52% of Londoners feel lonely.
While not all those living alone are lonely, most people who are lonely live alone. Currently about 6.9 million people live alone in England, about 11% of the population. This is up 38% over the last 25 years. This trend is evident across the major cities with a 45% and 31% increase in Liverpool and Leeds respectively, perhaps partly because of a return to city centre living by younger people.
Figure 1: Growth of one-person households, selected cities, 1991-2014 and forecast
Source: Nomis and ONS
The number of single-person households in England is expected to increase to around 8.6 million by 2040. In London it will be up by a third, in Birmingham by a quarter. The combination of an ageing population and more single person households means that the loneliness problem in our cities isn’t going away.
Cities and community leaders will increasingly find themselves responsible for bringing people together through ‘social infrastructure’. Events will help people connect and reinforce a common community identity. Technology will also assist with apps such as Huggle and local websites helping to connect people and there will also be a premium on provision of good places and paces to meet – the gym, the bar or the community centre.
And real estate also seems likely to respond. As we write elsewhere, concepts like multigenerational housing and co-housing seem likely to grow in popularity as like-minded people club together to solve their own housing problems. For younger people, co-living concepts such as that offered by The Collective are proving popular. Retirement villages also seem likely to become ever more frequent in the UK to respond to the social needs of its ageing population. We’d expect to see a big expansion in all these concepts by 2040.