Western countries are facing an “epidemic of solitude.” Although its impact on mental health has attracted considerable attention, little is known about the economic effects. Let us distinguish two forms of solitude. While a larger proportion of people living “single” are driven by economic growth, the increase in loneliness has detrimental economic consequences. Although this relationship is complex and non-linear, the region with lonely people is experiencing generally weaker economic growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of loneliness in modern societies. A feeling of loneliness often occurs when one perceives a decline in social relationships, especially qualitative ones. In this case, loneliness can be likened to loneliness – a daunting experience that can lead to irritability, depression, and an increase in premature deaths.
Loneliness can also apply to people who live alone, without the company of family and friends. However, living and functioning as a stand-alone unit are usually not associated with the negative effects of loneliness. Increasingly, individuals are living alone not because they are forced but of their own free will. Over time, the archetypal profile of a lone senior citizen has been replaced by an adult professional, often a woman, with a high level of education and a stable job. However, in times such as the current Covid pandemic, which is characterized by forced quarantine or self-isolation, the life satisfaction of people living alone may decline, which may affect overall economic activity.
In general, being lonely and living alone describes different states of mind and can represent different attitudes to life, leading to different overall economic outcomes. Factors such as greater participation of women in the labor market increased life expectancy, and urbanization is forcing more and more people to live alone. The proportion of individuals living alone has been rising for some time, but living alone does not necessarily mean that individuals are lonely. Lonely individuals often feel isolated, indicating emotional separation from others and society. At the same time, many of those who live alone do not have this emotional separation and lead a vibrant social life.
When combined, these two dimensions of solitude can have detrimental consequences from a purely economic point of view:
- More people who feel lonely and/or live alone can reduce the number of interpersonal and personal interactions marked by new ideas and innovations.
- Many people affected by loneliness may avoid engaging in economic activities.
- Various forms of loneliness can undermine trust and hinder bridging social capital, which has been identified as an important factor in regional economic growth.
- However, living alone is expensive, and those living alone need significant economic resources to finance the costs of living alone. This can prevent the potentially negative economic effects of increasing loneliness in the developed world.
A pair of scientists, Chiara Burlin and Rodriguez-Pose, investigated the effects of loneliness and loneliness on economic growth in 139 regions of Europe in the run-up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their study, published last year, takes into account three main degrees of solitude:
- the share of people living alone in the total population,
- community index as an indicator of loneliness, which includes the degree of interaction within a region measured by the number of personal meetings for social purposes, regardless of frequency,
- the frequency of personal interactions (from everyday social gatherings to never meeting anyone else for a social purpose).
European geography is extremely diverse in terms of these different forms of solitude. The proportion of individuals living alone is much higher in Nordic countries and Central Europe than in Spain and Portugal or Eastern Europe. In addition to national borders, there is a significant gap between the countryside and the city.
The geography of community/loneliness is more complex. Southern countries such as Spain and Portugal have a higher degree of sociability. However, high levels of sociability are also evident in other countries, such as France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden. There are significant regional differences in communities within countries, but scientists have not found clear differences between urban and rural areas. Many regions with a high concentration of people living alone – such as Brussels, most of the regions of the United Kingdom, Franche-Comté in France, or Schleswig-Holstein in Germany – also have a high community index.
Although increasing loneliness has potentially harmful health, mental and social consequences, it does not pose the same threat from an economic point of view. A larger proportion of people living alone contributes to European regions’ economic growth. Moreover, a growing number of people who choose to live alone – instead of being forced to do so by external circumstances – can support economic growth provided they remain active in the workforce and are willing to network and communicate with others.
On the contrary, the increase in loneliness has overall detrimental economic consequences. A society with more lonely people has a more limited ability to create additional wealth. However, the link between loneliness and economic growth depends on the frequency of encounters between people. Too many interactions, such as the predominance of daily meetings, can undermine the benefits of personal exchanges. Companies with fewer individuals meeting than a week are less likely to grow. The golden mean seems to be the choice of a large section of the population that meets friends, relatives, and co-workers on average each week.
COVID-19 causes an increase in various forms of loneliness, which requires a greater need for policies that mitigate its negative effects. It is not always clear how governments and politicians should intervene in areas that belong to the individual, as any form of loneliness can result from personal choice. However, the economic consequences of growing loneliness can be felt not only at the individual but also at the overall level requires more political attention. The solutions will require a deeper look at the reasons for growing loneliness to prevent it from minimizing its negative impact on joint health well-being and eliminating social and economic consequences.