We finished writing Young and Lonely: The Social Conditions of Loneliness just as we were adjusting to the new world of COVID-19, lockdown and social distancing. What seems like a lifetime ago, we concluded by calling for a new way of thinking and talking about young people’s loneliness, about our need to connect with each other as well as be alone.
We reject those tendencies to describe loneliness in ways that stigmatise it as personal failure, either explicitly or implicitly, by failing to put it in the social context of precarity, inequality and poverty. We also wish to develop different registers and rationales for our concern with young people’s social and emotional lives rather than proclaiming a youth loneliness crisis underpinned by metaphors relating to contagion and social plagues.
If loneliness really is a social plague, then it demands action. But ‘youth’ has long been ‘a crisis’, so speaking of young people’s loneliness in this way puts any engagement with the issue at risk of being superseded by the next youth crisis – drugs, gangs, knife crime, underachievement, overeating, mental health or social media. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is crisis enough to push other concerns to the back of the queue.
In the initial months of the pandemic, there was much concern in the UK media about the effects of lockdown isolation on young people’s health and wellbeing. Medical science anticipated an increase in demand for mental health services by young people spending extended time on their own, away from the usual peer support, out of school, college or university, and lacking the daily routines provided by education or work. But as we approach the anticipated second wave this autumn, young people and their ordinary social practices have become scapegoats for the increasing rate of infection. The UK government seem to be shifting the blame for mismanaging the pandemic onto the public and placing responsibility for swerving a second national lockdown on individual citizens. This recasting from ‘victim’ to ‘culprit’ to ‘scapegoat’ in public policy is a familiar one for young people.
It is evident that young people’s associations and friendships, their emotional lives and need to connect, are caught up in the global emergencies of the pandemic. No doubt our desires, relationships of care and affection have always been part of the spread of infectious diseases. The oscillation from care/concern to blame/stigmatisation is familiar too. Yet the finger-pointing at students in halls of residence (and the consequent enforced self-isolation) suggests that the statement ‘we are all in this together’ is only a very partial and abstract truth. There are profound differences in how we are experiencing both infection and the regulations and responses to it. ‘Age’ is just one of these differences. Similarly, loneliness and isolation are experienced differently. In our book we explore poverty as a vector of loneliness, as well as the various ways in which difference is mobilised as exclusion. One of the most powerful moments of loneliness among young people derives from the aspirational pressures of the exam system: a reality made public by the shameful treatment of young people taking exams this past summer, many of whom are now being labelled as student super-spreaders.
The ordinary aspects of young people’s lives – education and work transitions, dating etc. – have all been disrupted by the pandemic. These are moments in which loneliness can move from being a passing experience to a long-term one.
The chronic loneliness which some young people experience was already in evidence before this crisis and will endure beyond it. As part of a project collecting evidence about everyday life in the time of COVID-19, we have continued to encounter some of the most painful illustrations of this loneliness. In diaries collected for the Mass Observation Archive, one writer stated: “Social distancing and self isolation is not new to me. Apart from work I had not had a meaningful conversation with anyone for over six months before the lockdown started. This was because of the way I was treated in a series of toxic relationships and so-called friendships which led to me to withdraw completely from social media and contact, including dating, way before the lockdown happened.”
Such experiences may come as a surprise to some but were already familiar to many young people. These testimonies need to be listened to and taken account of as responses to the pandemic develop, in contrast to triggering a knee-jerk resort to blame. Young people are clearly suffering sharply even if the virus tends to affect them less seriously than older people. Models of mutual support and care that emerged in our research, both within peer groups and intergenerationally, are needed in relation to COVID-19 too.
In Young and Lonely: The Social Conditions of Loneliness, we report on Loneliness Connects Us, an 18-month inquiry inspired by arts-based, creative, collaborative and youth work methods. The findings of the research give clear evidence of the existence of both loneliness and unanticipated friendships among young people. They also reveal valuable processes of research which are collaborative and creative, with theatre makers, youth workers and young advocates all working in parallel. The encounters made through this partnership helped us to think about loneliness in new ways, creating routes to navigate it or to find comfort in being by oneself as well as ways to connect happily with others. The Co-op Foundation funded the research to bring the voice of young people into a growing national conversation about youth loneliness. Forty Second Street Manchester – a community-based charity supporting young people’s mental and emotional health and wellbeing – anchored and supported the whole process. Such partnerships will be absolutely necessary in finding new ways to support young people’s mental health – and pushing back on the tendencies to blame and scapegoat – as the COVID-19 crisis moves deeper into its chronic phase.
Janet Batsleer is a Reader in Youth and Community at Manchester Metropolitan University.
James Duggan is a Research Fellow in Childhood, Youth and Education studies at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Young and Lonely: The Social Conditions of Loneliness by Janet Batsleer and James Duggan is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £15.99.
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