The story about loneliness is one we think we know. It revolves around a caricature - older people, often widowed in retirement, often living in houses that were once family homes, and in communities that were once close-knitted where neighbourliness is in steady decline. It’s a powerful story – partly because it’s one we fear for ourselves. But it’s not the whole story.
Nationally, it is young people who are more likely to say they are lonely than older people. In many parts of the country the housing market leaves most young adults with limited choices in making a home. As shared homes are losing their living rooms, and prices send millennials to the cheaper and sleepier suburbs, the social life of the city is not what it once was.
The popular image of so-called ‘Generation Snowflake’ is that they are incessantly sociable - SnapChatting pictures of their avocado-fuelled brunches to their mates. But the visibility of sociability can create a taboo around loneliness. Ipsos Mori data shows 27% of millennials in London say they would be embarrassed to admit to feeling lonely – compared to 12% of over 55s, while 68% of millennials in the capital report they often feel isolated, versus 49% of over 55s.
Our entrenched housing challenges are a big part of the story. It is the generation currently coming to live on their own for the first time who need new answers to old questions.
On a typical graduate salary the affordable options often boil down to a kitchen-in-the-bedroom studio, or having your living companions determined by recurring rounds of Gumtree Roulette. No wonder 40% of millennials still live at home.
Of course, some will come to appreciate randomness and anonymity as formative experiences of early adulthood. Others will find great friends in flatshares. But a healthier housing market would make quality housing achievable for single person households and young adults. We’ve just published a collection of essays exploring how co-living could be part of the answer – as it is for other demographics. At their best, retirement communities and care homes are designed to combine privacy and build community among neighbours. Increasingly, groups are organising to co-design housing schemes, deciding what they need and working together to finance and build it. And in big cities, professionally-managed and purpose-built co-living developments are a growing market. They have extensive shared facilities and employ staff trained in community development.
If it sounds utopian, it probably is: in fact collective living arrangements have taken different forms over the long history of humans sheltering together. Our modern obsession with property ownership and privacy behind net curtains is a relatively recent, and distinctly British, way of organising housing. Housing wealth has become a greater dividing line in society, and the repercussions are serious: where we live and how we live can serve to isolate as well as integrate. We need to recognise the social as well as the financial value that homes represent.
The government signalled it is taking loneliness seriously, establishing a cross-government working group to drive action across government. In shaping the agenda, the recognition that loneliness affects the young as well as the old is welcome. But in formulating a systematic response to a society-wide issue, we must address the fundamentals that structure social life. Shared spaces in our communities allow us to come together, but loneliness starts at home.
Atif Shafique presents five key take-aways from the RSA's recent publication on co-living - a form of housing that builds community by combining private living space with communal facilities.
Tim Murphy FRSA asks why so many UK private homes are under-occupied and calls for research and action to better understand the causes of under-occupancy and what can be done to prevent rooms staying empty.