An age of alienation: why we must end the dangerous decline in community life

We need to grapple with an emerging social epidemic of rising loneliness, falling trust and declining participation among young people.

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Until now, commentators have mostly treated the fraying of our social fabric as a problem of economic geography. As a result of deindustrialisation, globalisation and historic spending choices, the argument runs, some places have deteriorated more than others, breeding myriad social problems including political volatility, low aspiration, and entrenched public ill-health. These are all frailties that have been ruthlessly exposed by Covid-19 in the past 15 months.

But what if the decline in community is not so much geographic as generational? As an important study for the think tank Onward exposes today, while social attachment is falling across the Western world, it is collapsing among one group in particular: young people. Since 1981, the share of 18-35 year olds who agree that “most people can be trusted” has fallen by a quarter, to just 30 per cent today, compared to 40 per cent among those aged 35 or more. 

This generational trust gap is not just generalised, but true among different groups. Among 18-24 year olds, only 79 per cent say they trust their family and only 69 per cent say they trust people they know personally, compared to 94 per cent and 97 per cent respectively among those over the age of 65. People under the age of 25 are three times more likely to distrust their neighbours as those aged 65 or more. Social trust is increasingly the preserve of the elderly, and this is a cohort effect, not just a traditional difference between old and young. Generations are getting lonelier and becoming less meaningfully connected over time.

Other forms of social attachment are following a similar pattern. Young people are half as likely to say they regularly speak to neighbours, and a third less likely to borrow or exchange favours with them, as they were in 1998. At the age of 25, just 37 per cent of millennials are members of a local group, down from 48 per cent among Generation X. Generation Z, the oldest of whom turn 25 next year, are even less likely to join groups at earlier ages than millennials. These trends echo much of what has happened to the United States in recent decades, as exposed by political scientist Robert Putnam’s landmark study Bowling Alone (2000). 

[see also: How loneliness became an epidemic]

This has enormous implications for our democracy. It is no coincidence that across the West those most susceptible to authoritarianism are often younger, despite liberal values and youth being considered close bedfellows. In the UK, research for Onward before the last general election found that more than one in three 18 to 35-year-olds believed that “putting the army in charge” would be a good way to run the country, and a quarter did not think democratic government would be. In France, some polls have suggested that Marine Le Pen is around 19 percentage points ahead among 25 to 34-year-olds ahead of next year’s presidential election, with 37 per cent of the vote.

These trends – the decline of trust, the fracturing of democracy, the decline of civic association – are connected. In the 19th century, the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville proclaimed the “art of association” as the “mother science” from which all other forms of progress emanate. The secret of America, he argued, was a thriving civic life that through association moulded democratic values, spurred economic innovation and fostered social cohesion between different groups. 

Nearly 200 years of economic and social research has proved this insight extremely astute. Through the work of Nobel economists such as Ken Arrow and Douglass North and social scientists such as MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and Chicago University’s James Robinson, we now know that countries with higher levels of trust and stronger civic culture have higher levels of income, greater life satisfaction and longer life expectancy. And nations without it fail.

This has only been reinforced by the experience of the past year, when social connection has been curtailed and civic networks stretched to breaking point in pursuit of public safety. The pandemic has shown the best of society – from “scrub hubs” making PPE to mutual aid groups and food banks. But it has also shown the parts of our social fabric that have worn thin from disrepair: the charities living grant-to-mouth, the pubs perennially on the brink of closure, the high streets standing empty and forgotten. 

[see also: Beyond “Zoomshock”: The death and life of the British high street]

As we emerge from this crisis, we must take the time to reweave our social fabric, especially for younger generations. And the urgency of the question demands bold and radical answers. Is it not time, for example, to offer every young person the time and opportunity to do national civic service each year, as France, Italy and Austria now do? This need not be compulsory, if ministers rewarded young people for participation. In the US, for example, young people who contribute 1,700 hours of community service through AmeriCorps each year are rewarded by a $6,095 prize redeemable against college tuition fees. 

Alongside this, ministers should democratise the civic realm for associations to meet, expand and run activities. In 2020, nearly one in 25 vacant high street shops had been vacant for three or more years and councils owned 100,000 empty garages – yet community groups and local clubs often struggle to find space. Legislation could make publicly owned sports pitches and green spaces available to civic groups during evenings and weekends and introduce a temporary permission for long-term vacant or unused assets to be converted for community use. 

Thanks to the ingenuity of scientists and the resolve of the public, we are finally gaining the upper hand over coronavirus. Growth is starting to return and pubs and stadiums are already overflowing with football fans. But we have not yet started to grapple with an emerging social epidemic of rising loneliness, falling trust and declining participation among young people. We have spent the last half-century largely ignoring this age of alienation. We cannot afford to do the same for the next.

Will Tanner is director of Onward and James O'Shaughnessy is chair of Onward's Repairing our Social Fabric programme

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