Americans have long worried that their countrymen are lonely, but recently, mild concern has given way to outright panic. In 2017, the former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that loneliness in the United States had reached epidemic proportions. And it’s not just Americans who are anxious—in January, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the country’s first minister for loneliness.
While apprehensiveness about elders is particularly intense—the aging grandparent who lives alone and hasn’t talked to a soul for days has become a recurring motif in stories about the crisis—no group is exempt from concern: A recent study suggests the unnerving possibility that young adults may be the loneliest Americans of all.
Explanations for this plague of loneliness abound, ranging from declining participation in organized social activities and religious organizations to the ubiquity of technology such as social media and cell phones that suck up people’s attention. Often, though, policy makers and pundits single out two culprits: sagging marriage rates and the increasing number of Americans living alone.
Amid the public outcry, the Senate Committee on Aging convened a hearing last April about loneliness and its potential consequences. One of the experts who testified, the Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, explained the problem to a group of senators by declaring that “more than a quarter of the U.S. population (28 percent of older adults) lives alone, over half the U.S. adult population is unmarried, and one in five have never married.”