Why is adulthood so lonely

Millions of Germans affected : The growing suffering of loneliness

More and more people in Germany feel lonely. This emerges from the response of the federal government to a request from the FDP parliamentary group.

Elderly people are particularly affected by loneliness, but not only. One finding applies to all of them: loneliness can make you sick.

1. How many people in Germany suffer from loneliness - and what are the consequences for their health?

Loneliness affects "all population groups" in this country, according to the government's response to a request from the FDP parliamentary group, which is available to the Tagesspiegel. The number of those who suffer from it is increasing. According to government information, the proportion of 45 to 84 year olds affected increased by around 15 percent between 2011 and 2017. In individual age groups, the rate even rose by almost 60 percent. Eight years ago, 5.1 percent of 65 to 74-year-olds felt lonely, recently it was 8.1 percent.

A problem even for young people: 4.2 percent of the 11 to 17 year olds stated that they often or always feel lonely. Girls experience feelings of loneliness more often than boys. The figures come from the German Aging Survey and a long-term study by the Robert Koch Institute on child health. The market research institute Splendid Research estimates the number of those affected to be even higher. According to him, twelve percent of Germans felt often or constantly lonely in 2017. People in their mid-thirties felt particularly isolated, here the rate is 18 percent.

Scientific studies show that loneliness increases the risk of chronic stress, cardiovascular disease, depression, dementia, early death and suicide. The need for long-term care also occurs earlier and more frequently in lonely people. According to a study by Brigham Young University, loneliness is as harmful as smoking or obesity in terms of all-cause mortality.

2. How is loneliness defined?

Not everyone with little social contact is automatically lonely. Even those who are not sociable and are self-sufficient can create a varied, fulfilling living environment without missing the company of others for a long time. "Everyone needs a certain degree of social integration," says Jule Specht, professor of personality psychology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. "We all benefit from social contacts in our emotional well-being."

Accordingly, the extensive absence of social contact can be defined as a state of loneliness. According to Maike Luhmann, professor of psychology at the Ruhr University in Bochum, indicators are “social integration, the number of friendships and the frequency of contacts”. In a study published in 2016 by Luhmann and Louise C. Hawkley (University of Chicago), which is also cited in the Small Inquiry, it says: “A higher degree of social inclusion - meeting friends and relatives, being part of social groups going to church and doing voluntary work - is associated with a low degree of loneliness from childhood to old age. "

3. The older, the lonelier?

Luhmann and Hawkley contradict this widespread assumption with their study on "Age differences in loneliness from youth to old age". According to statistics, there is a particularly strong sense of loneliness among young adults around the age of 35, around the age of 60 and in the group of the very old. However, the researchers find it difficult to find explanations for the loneliness “peak” in young adults in particular. Because the factors that lead to loneliness beyond personal social ties are particularly decisive for people of old age. According to the study, income, relationship status - as single or in a relationship - and household size are less relevant for young adults than for old people, who also often suffer from physical limitations that further isolate them.

An example: It is equally characteristic of young and old to be single. According to Luhmann and Hawkley, however, this is perceived less as a trigger for loneliness among the young. They justify this with the fact that a partnership in young adulthood is no longer necessarily a social norm and that younger people can “compensate for the absence of a romantic relationship with a larger social network in private and professional life”.

4. What are other reasons for loneliness?

Anyone who still goes to school, studies, is in vocational training or is freshly involved in working life is more likely to have larger groups of friends. For young people, "the lifetime seems endless, their focus is on preparing for the future," says HU professor Jule Specht. Older people, on the other hand, are more aware of the finiteness of life. Her focus is therefore on emotional well-being, so that people of this age "tend to have small, close circles of friends and stick to the familiar". As a result, however, losses in the circle of friends - for example through illness or death - also had a particularly strong impact.

5. What role does digitization play?

The loneliness of young people is often associated with digitization and the corresponding leisure activities. It is obvious that young men in particular who lose themselves in the virtual world of video games have fewer social contacts. On the other hand, social media promote exchange among each other. Jule Specht sees Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp & Co. “as an opportunity to reduce loneliness in every age group, as they enable flexible communication in terms of time and space”. And especially in old age, with physical limitations and for people living alone.

6. What is the government doing?

She made a promise. "In view of an increasingly individualized, mobile and digital society, we will develop strategies and concepts that prevent loneliness in all age groups and combat loneliness," it says on page 118 of the coalition agreement. In practice, however, it seems rather at a loss. In response to the question, the government specifically refers to specialist congresses and monitoring only to the funding of multigenerational houses with 17.5 million euros per year. 540 of them already exist in Germany, almost half of them offer "targeted offers for lonely people". However, the federal program for this will expire next year. In addition, measures for village development and long-term care insurance benefits are listed. There are offers for everyday relief that support those in need of care in maintaining social contacts.

The FDP MP Andrew Ullmann reads from all of this that the issue is not being approached in a concerted manner due to the lack of clear jurisdiction. Above all, the federal government is "blank when it comes to the loneliness of young people". Ullmann says: "We shouldn't be so naive as to believe that radical upheavals like digitization do not have an impact on the psychosocial level."

7. How do other countries deal with the issue?

The British have advanced the furthest. They set up a loneliness ministry in 2018. The department's website states that loneliness is on the way to becoming Britain's most dangerous disease. The Red Cross called the phenomenon a "hidden epidemic". It found that 200,000 old people on the island only talk to friends or relatives once a month. In Denmark, a study found that one in three feels lonely and isolated on a regular basis. And in Japan, Hikikomori syndrome has been moaning for a long time. These are mostly male, young adults who suddenly withdraw and rigorously break off all contact with the outside world. For those affected, there are now special dormitories for reintegration into society.

8. What are politicians asking for?

The FDP politician and physician Ullmann demands a clear strategy to combat loneliness. This included innovative living and mobility concepts as well as promoting health literacy. It is not enough to extend the contracts for generation houses and to refer to "a bundle of individual projects", he says. Rather, "an expert commission is urgently needed to scientifically evaluate the topic and present recommendations". The SPD expert Karl Lauterbach wants to personalize the problem, he is pushing for a government commissioner who, following the British example, should take care of loneliness and damage caused by loneliness in society.

The family policy spokesman for the Union parliamentary group, Marcus Weinberg, can also imagine a separate area in the government for coordinating measures. There must be more offers that enable lonely people to participate in social life again, says the CDU politician. And the Greens urge first of all to determine the social consequences of loneliness in order to underpin the urgency of measures. They assume, says their health expert Maria Klein-Schmeink, "that every investment against loneliness is also economically worthwhile - not to mention the positive effects on every single lonely person".

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page