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Antonio Moreno Ibáñez, Professor of Economics, School . D. at Economics, Columbia University

The economic cost of loneliness

Sun, 03 Mar 2019 10:29:00 +0000 Published in ABC

According to the World Economic Forum, the current level of global loneliness is one of the three major threats to Economics in 2019 - the other two being extreme weather and global economic vulnerabilities. As a button for sample, one of the sessions organized at the global meetings in Davos this past January carried degree scroll: "Loneliness: an epidemic?" 

Some of the World Economic Forum's data data on the incidence of loneliness are, precisely, bleak: in Paris, 50% of the population lives alone, while in Stockholm it is 60%. In the United Kingdom, the proportion of people living alone has doubled since 1960 to 31%. What's more, half of people over 75 in the UK live alone, and many of them have not spoken to a relative or friend in over a month. In the US, the issue of very close friends fell from 3 to 2 between 1985 and 2004, and the issue of people with no real friends tripled in this interval to become the most common friend status. 

The economic costs of loneliness are enormous. In the UK, it is estimated that, for elderly people, loneliness increases healthcare costs by £6,000 per elderly person. Loneliness also increases the risk of depression and mental illness - these illnesses had a global impact of 2.5 trillion US (billions in Europe) dollars in 2010. Loneliness is estimated to be as toxic as smoking about 15 cigarettes a day.

So pressing is status in the UK, that a Ministry dedicated exclusively to loneliness - the Ministry of Loneliness - has been created to deal with such a real and costly problem. The status of despair at loneliness among some elderly Japanese has reached such an extent that they deliberately commit petty theft in order to be arrested and thus lead "a better life" in prison, where they can at last enjoy other people to talk to and socialize with. 

What has been said so far should raise many relevant questions and debates. One that surely crosses our minds is the following: how did we get to this epidemic? Certainly the reigning individualism emerges as a clear candidate . Likewise, it seems reasonable to affirm that two allies of individualism and lack of coexistence are the excessive issue hours of work suffered by many people, and the massive use of new unipersonal technologies -the worldwide average staff is 24 hours a week on the Internet-. 

The remedy to this secular trend of loneliness is not simple, as it implies a change in lifestyle and way of thinking, something like a social catharsis. In fact, the best antidotes to loneliness are family and friendship, and these are not built overnight, nor are they generated by social engineering. That said, resource to public and business policies can help in terms of work-life balance and family stability. Moreover, the use of technology could facilitate reduced work conference or work from home, allowing more time to be spent with loved ones. More important than the direct impact generated by these policies is the culture they generate in civil society, the true driving force of society.
For when people or institutions transmit a lifestyle in which coexistence is cultivated, and where spaces of friendship and union are generated, more social resources are generated against loneliness. Social wealth is generated and, as a consequence, economic costs are reduced.

We have all felt the burden of loneliness at least at some point. And it is natural to feel compassion for people, more or less close to us, who are lonely and lacking in companionship, appreciation and affection. It is the human response to such existential fragility. What was perhaps not so clearly glimpsed is this additional reason to fight against loneliness: the great economic cost it constitutes. This motive, surely less profound than the human degradation that loneliness implies, should nevertheless make us reflect with a view to building a more sustainable Economics .