×

Isolation is rising in Europe. Can loneliness ministers help change that?

  • British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London last week. Bloomberg via AP



The Washington Post
Saturday, February 03, 2018

As the number of single households in Europe has steadily risen in recent years, so have the concerns over an issue that is not often in the focus of national political debate: loneliness, “the hidden epidemic,” according to the Red Cross.

Britain became the first European nation in mid-January to name a “minister of loneliness,” amid studies revealing that roughly 10 percent of all Brits regularly feel isolated. British Prime Minister Theresa May chose politician Tracey Crouch for the role, who also maintained her previous position as sports minister.

The country’s rise to the forefront of combating isolation also came in response to the murder of lawmaker Jo Cox in 2016. Cox was killed by a man with connections to the far-right and the country’s political elite vowed to carry on her fight. Loneliness was Cox’s primary policy issue and she galvanized Westminster’s approach to the problem by forming a commission to search for new approaches during her one year in Parliament.

“We should all do everything we can to see that, in Jo’s memory, we bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good,” May said in a statement in mid-January. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”

Recent British statistics revealed that about 200,000 citizens tend to not communicate with friends or relatives even once per month, on average. Doctors also said they frequently encounter multiple patients a day whose primary concern is isolation.

This certainly isn’t only a British problem, however. Across Europe, life satisfaction continuously drops the older residents become.

Britain’s push to tackle loneliness among older residents has now led to demands for similar schemes elsewhere. Switzerland’s conservative Neue Zuercher Zeitung recently asked in a headline: “Does Switzerland need a ministry of loneliness?” And in neighboring Germany, the issue has emerged as a topic in the ongoing coalition talks between the Social Democrats and the Conservative bloc.

“There has to be someone responsible for this issue, preferably within the Health Ministry, who can coordinate the fight against loneliness,” the Social Democrats’ health expert, Karl Lauterbach, told German tabloid Bild. Marcus Weinberg, the family policy spokesperson of Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, refrained from advocating for the creation of a new ministry or department but argued in favor of new schemes to tackle the issue. “We need to remove the taboos from this topic so that lonely people have a lobby,” he said.

While isolation is especially widespread among older people in Britain and Germany - with the majority of those older than 75 living alone - other countries in Europe are facing slightly different problems.

In Sweden, for instance, loneliness is far from limited to older generations. According to the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat, single adults without children make up about half of all households in Sweden. (Across the E.U., singles usually make up about a third of all households which is already more than in most other places in the world, perhaps excluding Japan.)

“Sweden has more than any other country embraced the idea of independent and autonomous individuals and has created institutions that guarantee that we are not dependent on one another,” Erik Gandini, the director of the documentary movie “The Swedish Theory of Love,” told Radio Sweden in 2016. In his movie, Gandini blames Sweden’s long-heralded individual autonomy for the fact that up to 25 percent of all Swedes say that they frequently feel lonely.

The Swedish government has in the past encouraged that lifestyle despite the criticism, for instance by providing incentives for the creation of compact homes that are now prevalent across Sweden. Living alone in a single-room flat in Stockholm is comparably cheaper than it would be in other major capitals that face similar housing shortages, including London, New York City or Paris. But with Sweden’s self-perception as a society that values autonomy and independence now being deeply ingrained in the country’s housing market and social security system, there is no easy fix.

European nations may frequently team up to tackle various issues but in their multifaceted fight against loneliness, they mostly appear to be on their own, too.