Fjolla Krasniqi is a programme manager at Onward.
As we slowly start to emerge from the pandemic, much of the focus is on people’s economic prospects, especially the scarring effects of joblessness on younger generations.
This is understandable: people under the age of 25 years old have accounted for over 60 per cent of the number of employees that fell off the payroll in the year to February.
But while the economic impact of the pandemic is important, we ignore the social and cultural effects of the pandemic on young people at our peril.
For the last year, people’s social lives have been paused, families kept apart, and restrictions put in place for social gatherings with friends. Even during wars and previous pandemics, human beings were not as isolated in their social engagement.
And so, while these measures successfully reduced the transmission of one epidemic, it created another: loneliness.
Three years ago, the UK appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness and put in place a national loneliness strategy, but the pandemic halted much of that good work to elevate loneliness as a serious condition and tackle it, one conversation at a time.
The latest ONS data shows that around 3.7 million adults felt lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’ between October 2020 and February 2021. This is an enormous increase of 1.1 million people from the start of the first lockdown in March last year.
During the first lockdown of 2021, 1 in 5 (21 per cent) of adults experienced depression. Worryingly, this is only half the story. According to the ONS, this was an increase since November 2020 (19 per cent) and more than double that observed before the Covid-19 pandemic (ten per cent). This speaks volumes to the serious public health problem that has been created over the past year. The invisible cost of politicians not recognising and acting could be enormous in the long-term.
This is not just a geriatric disease. It is the young that have been hit the hardest by lockdown loneliness. Those aged 16-24 were most likely to report feeling ‘often’ or ‘always’ in loneliness surveys – and were five times more likely to say they had felt lonely in the past seven days than those 65 to 74-year-olds. This should come at no surprise: their pandemic experience has been marked by hours of disrupted schooling, unrecoverable workplace interactions and relations, and a largely non-existent social life.
There is reason to believe loneliness may even have the potential to be as scarring on the young as youth unemployment. Not only does loneliness increase mortality by 26 per cent, but its health impact is comparable to other well-known risk factors.
Studies have also shown that loneliness can be as fatal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or obesity and can raise levels of stress, undermine quality of sleep and lead to depression.
And the toll of loneliness to the economy is profound. It is estimated that loneliness costs UK employers £2.5 billion every year. This is primarily due to the costs of wellbeing and productivity (26 per cent of the cost, or £665 million), the impact of caring responsibilities (nine per cent, or £220 million) and ill health and associated sickness absence (one per cent, or £20 million). Good and meaningful connections matter not just because of our health, but for the wider economy.
But this isn’t the only important aspect of the loneliness crisis. Some local places that have been hit the worst by lockdown loneliness. Places like North Lincolnshire, Middlesbrough, Blackburn, and Hartlepool are on average twice as lonely, compared to the national average. These are also the areas where the Government needs to level up.
Many of these post-industrial areas are the same ones that Onward identified as having a fraying social fabric in our Social Fabric Index last year. For example, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough ranked 375 and 379 lowest out of 380 local authorities. These places have long suffered from the disappearance of common institutions and the visible demise of high streets and town centres, making their social infrastructure sparser and less resilient.
It is perhaps no coincidence that these places are also the most volatile political battlegrounds too. Last week’s historic Conservative win in Hartlepool only serves to remind us of this.
What does this all mean? The growing loneliness epidemic must not be ignored, amongst the larger worries of the wider pandemic. It is an issue that is experienced by all ages and needs a response from all parts of society. Politicians will need to be focusing as much on the social fabric of people’s lives and local places, as the economic fundamentals.
The Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund are a good start, but policymakers must make good their commitment to funding social infrastructure, support social connections as well as roads and rail.
Yesterday’s Queen’s Speech defined levelling up in largely economic terms. There is a clear need to think deeper and broader about what we mean by levelling up. The risk for the Government is that the pledge to ‘Build Back Better’ will be empty without it.