Britain’s Struggle With Loneliness
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty,” said Mother Teresa. We might be inclined to think the little Catholic nun from Albania had in mind the destitute and dying of Calcutta, though this is the same woman who fired plenty of salvos at the West for its spiritual indigence. For example, one such quote—”It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish”—is a favorite bumper sticker of America’s pro-life movement. Recently I pondered the ironic intersection of Western wealth and spiritual impoverishment on a visit to one of the world’s most affluent cities—London. The loneliness of Londoners—and Brits more generally—should serve as a warning to we Americans across the pond.
The January 2018 decision by Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to establish a “minister for loneliness” elicited widespread commentary (and chuckles) from both British and American media. But it’s quite serious business. According to a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than nine million people in Great Britain—about 14 percent of the population—“often or always feel lonely.” Government research found that about 200,000 older people in the U.K. “had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.” While riding the London Underground two weeks before Christmas, I noticed an advertisement asserting that “2.65 million older people feel they have no one to turn to for help and support.” Besides the obvious downsides to loneliness (e.g. depression), medical research associates it with all manner of other health issues: greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety, among them.
The British government is taking many steps (including this new ministry) to address this loneliness “epidemic.” Yet the reasons for such relational poverty (one that many developing countries do not have) are fairly straightforward. British families, like those of their American cousins, are getting smaller. The birth rate in the U.K. is below replacement level (1.76), while their marriage rates are the lowest ever. A Millennial friend I visited while in London told me that he knows very few Brits who are planning on ever marrying or having a family. When people don’t get married, or they marry but have no children, then their support network will narrow as they age. Friends and extended family members inevitably move away or die, and before one knows it, there are very few real relational connections left.
Moreover, Brits, also like Americans, are increasingly abandoning the traditional forms of community, like religion, that binds people together and works against loneliness. While visiting Westminster Cathedral, I picked up a copy of the country’s leading Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Herald, which noted that only about 5 percent of Brits pray daily, compared to about 55 percent of Americans. Church attendance in the U.K. is similarly low, with about 5 percent of the population regularly attending. Instead of participating in religious services, many Brits are binge watching television—40 percent of the population daily watches hours of television by themselves. “Bowling alone” is not just an American phenomenon. As far as I could tell, the largest socializing institution in the country is now the English Premier League.
Some of the programming on British television I saw in my hotel room speaks to this sad reality. One program featured older, single Brits looking for love and committed relationships. One gentleman in his 60s, a practitioner of Eastern meditation, had spent much of his youth as a playboy of sorts. Now older and lonely, he was looking for a permanent mate, and even possibly a child. To facilitate these romantic hopes, he visited a New Age bar where he tried to impress some 30-ish women by doing what I can only describe as his best imitation of a wounded bird trying to fly. Another, far more disturbing program, Naked Attraction, is grounded in the premise that people might have a better chance of encountering true love if they see prospective mates in the nude. Guests choose from one of six naked contestants, scrupulously analyzing flesh while discussing in bizarre details the types of body parts they prefer.
Also notable about these trends of isolation is that one demographic of Brits remains committed to religious worship and larger families: Muslims. About 5 percent of the U.K. is Muslim, but about 9 percent of children under the age of five are Muslim, indicating that there will be a significant demographic shift over the next generation that favors the country’s Islamic community. One 2008 report speculated that by 2020 there will be more people attending mosques than Mass and Church of England services.
Of course, any knowledgeable American reader will recognize that practically every trend discussed above is also happening in the United States. One 2018 study found that nearly half of Americans suffer from loneliness—which is a bit less dramatic than “having no one to turn to,” but is still a worrisome statistic. American birth rates are at an all-time low. Much ink has been spilled over the “rise of the nones,” with almost a quarter of Americans now declaring no religious affiliation. American church membership and attendance—though still close to 40 percent—is also in decline. Many Americans demonstrate deeper allegiance to their favorite football teams than to a religious tradition. All this to say, the Brits may be a bit lonelier than us Americans, but we ain’t far behind.
My visit to England just happened to be timed with London being impressively decorated in the regalia of the Christmas season. My only prior experience in the U.K. was a short weekend trip to Northern Ireland while I studied abroad in Dublin—suffice it to say, London has its perks. Everyone I met, from the staff at the hotel, to the barkeeps, even to Britain’s equivalent of the TSA, was exceedingly courteous and friendly. There’s good reason why people are eager to visit one of the great financial and cultural capitals of the world.
Yet all the polite smiles and jovial remarks—perhaps sweetened by a dose of Christmas spirit—seem to hide a deeper relational and spiritual desolation, one that will only grow in time, barring some great national metanoia. We are still awaiting what Eugene Vodolazkin calls the “Age of Concentration,” a time of deepening social re-consolidation, where nations recognize the need for strong, ancient institutions like family and religion. For the sake of our British cousins, and for our own, we must hope that era comes soon.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.