BUENOS AIRES — After reading last month's article "The Loneliness of Millennials" in Clarín, I must point out that this problem does not apply to any single generation. For starters, the world's population is aging. The World Health Organization reports that life expectancy rose by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016. The indicator is not of course uniform across the world, and typically depends on income and healthcare available in a country or region. Even today, in some countries people live 18 fewer years on average than in wealthier places.
Still, there have been significant advances, as in the case of Eritrea, where life expectancy today is 22 years longer than early this century when it was barely 43 years, or other countries that have successfully fought AIDS, smallpox or other diseases.
In mid to high-income countries, the emphasis given to women having professional careers and calculating the costs of having a child has gradually cut down the birth rate as women have their first child later and later. In southern Europe where childbearing had traditionally been more prolific, each woman now has an average of 1.4 children.
This aging trend is generating a crisis in pensions and retirement systems worldwide, and a need for migrants to help sustain them, especially in the northern hemisphere. In parallel, it is also creating a new urban map with an explosion of single-member households including young people living with no partners, and older adults or separated individuals who are enjoying longer lives now.
Some consider this epidemic of loneliness more deadly than obesity.
One of the little-talked about results of this growing phenomenon is loneliness, particularly evident in older people but not exclusive to them. Polls show that more than 6% of Europeans (some 30 million souls) say they have nobody to talk to. The figure is 13% in Italy and Luxembourg. The United Kingdom created a government Minister of Loneliness after 200,000 people set off the alarms by telling a poll they had not spoken to anyone for a year. The lower house of Spain's legislature approved a strategy against loneliness, after 40% of youngsters aged 16-24 said they felt alone.
The aging trend is generating a crisis in pensions and retirement systems worldwide — Photo: Raoul Croes/Unsplash
Globally, 25% of all people admit they have nobody to talk to. Some consider this epidemic of loneliness more deadly than obesity, generating alcoholism, drug addiction, sleeplessness, dementia, but also skepticism and depression as it leads to faster processing of negative social information. This social phenomenon does not discriminate according to age, gender nor socio-economic level. It can be seen among hyper-connected kids living virtual lives online, in people with stable partners, and in the overworked or unemployed.
No system can eliminate our condition as gregarious and social beings, and we shall always have a need to count on "someone." The virtual world and its offer of instant and multiple connections have not managed so far to break the loneliness barrier, nor supplant the impact of physical presence or the shared experience with the "other."
Governments at various levels face the enormous challenge of acting with urgency on this particularly 21st-century ailment. They must develop strategies to promote group living and encourage a communal outlook oriented toward different age groups. Such initiatives can be applied to areas of services, team sports, tourism, and cultural activities. Ideally, such action would, in turn, become a tool for creating real jobs that will continue in the age of automation and Artificial Intelligence, and in turn stimulate productivity, innovation and ultimately feed contributions to public pensions and health services for that same aging population.
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