Opinion: Neoliberalism is making you lonely

Although many argue that social media is to blame for the surge of loneliness in younger generations, it is neoliberal policies that are truly to blame

Freedom is “To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing,” wrote Ayn Rand, noted idiot, in one of her terrible novels. She represents an idyllic view of a perfectly atomized and inherently lonely society that is all too real for our generation.

Neoliberalism can be a vague term. It typically describes contemporary liberalism that favors deregulation and laissez-faire economic policies. It claims to value equality and social progressiveness but heightens inequality. It’s Raytheon having a float at Pride, and its deceptive austerity has left society dangerously isolated.

A recent poll from YouGov showed 22% of millennials today say that they do not have a single friend, compared to 16% of Generation Xers and 9% of baby boomers. Another by Cigna found 46% of Americans report always feeling alone, and 27% report feeling like no one or rarely anyone understands them. 

Almost half report having no meaningful social interactions. And 18% rarely or never feel there is someone around to talk to. 

This same research argued Generation Z is the loneliest generation yet. At ASU, 40% report being so depressed it’s hard to function and 12% report seriously considering suicide. 

Your nostalgia blinded parents will tell you it's because we’re on social media all day instead of having “real conversations,” but that link hasn’t been scientifically proven. In fact, that same Cigna study found that heavy social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness. 

These numbers are terrifying by design. The economic and social structures of neoliberalism are working as intended by breaking down organic cohesion. They are ripping apart the social fabric of humanity and killing people in the process. 

A recent study out of BYU found loneliness to be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This is a worldwide public health crisis that cannot be mitigated by prescription drugs. In reality, the nation’s over-prescription of drugs serves only as a convenient distraction from our need for economic reform. 

Discourse about this public health crisis is nonexistent compared to the opioid epidemic or obesity problem. Celebrities don’t do somber public service announcements about isolation, and in my research, I could not find a presidential candidate having ever been asked about the issue. 

We have collectively turned our heads away from an issue that’s too uncomfortable and discouraging to investigate.

The economy is making you lonely

Most American work is deeply unfulfilling. 

According to a recent Gallup poll, 55% of millennials are not engaged in their jobs and 16% actively disengage from them. This is because the vast majority of people are wage slaves. They work for a boss, eight hours a day, five days a week and still 40% of Americans cannot afford a sudden charge of $400. Meanwhile, Norwegians report 94% job satisfaction due to more leisure time and democratic control in their workplaces.

Research shows a link between feeling a lack of control and anxious behavior. The fact that 48% of millennials report a lack of control at work explains why when more workers control their labor situation, their mental health is better. 

In addition, hierarchical systems in which shareholders make all decisions actively destroy workers’ psyches. The more people experience intensifying anxiety and depression, the less likely they are to properly function in society and make friends. 

A 2015 Brookings Institution study found those who had two or more friends were 20% less likely to be poor, proving a link between material circumstances and social isolation. This carries well into adulthood. AARP found that nearly half of adults over the age of 45 making $25,000 or less reported loneliness, compared to a third of those who were surveyed. 

There is a clear pipeline within America wherein those born without privilege and means are more susceptible to clinical loneliness. Studies have also shown how social isolation degrades the brain's ability to manage impulse control, obesity and drug use. 

Loneliness is a life-threatening illness, but traditional media outlets avoid the inherent discomfort of the topic. Loneliness seems like a personal failing of the strange or unlikable, when in reality, it ties more strongly to material circumstances and collective conditioning. 

Solitary confinement, the most draconian psychological punishment in America, forces increasingly parallel terror on the economically disenfranchised. 

Though better off than the poor, even the rich find pithy solace in modern consumerism. A 2012 study out of Northwestern University found that those who placed greater value on wealth, status and material possessions are less sociable than those who do not. Another study out of the University of Missouri found consumer desires replace social action when a father in the study reported longing for a new pool so he could bond with his 13-year-old daughter. 

In a neoliberal world that exists for the shareholders, it's worth asking who might be profiting off our collective social isolation. 

In 2016, drug companies spent $6 billion on advertisements for prescription drugs. Consequently, there has been a 64% rise in the amount of Americans taking antidepressants between 1999 and 2014. As of today, one in six Americans take some kind of psychiatric drug, and the antidepressant market is set to grow by almost $2 billion between 2017 and 2023

It’s obvious that some people need medication. The problem is that medication has become a profitable and convenient excuse to ignore the social and economic reforms we collectively require. 

A doctor can’t recommend you organize and overturn your economic system, but he can scribble down a prescription for Zoloft. 

Bad cities are making you lonely 

For a while, America built concentrated metropolitan cities. 

They were supposed to be big, fun, full of people and easy to get around. Then around the 1950s, American culture shifted toward utopian visions of atomized suburban life. 

Car companies and advertisers worked to enshrine the automobile as the defining symbol of American independence. Today more than 75% of people drive to work alone through frustratingly congested highways. Meanwhile, billionaires send dark money to cities like Phoenix to defund light rail infrastructure that might serve the collective. 

Prior to the 1950s, cities invested in subways and streetcars to transport people in dense urban centers, but the rise of the suburbs meant people needed individual, highly polluting vehicles to navigate modern life. 

The Great American Streetcar Scandal saw companies like General Motors purchase streetcars and public trains in the 40s, only to dismantle 90% of them by 1950. The auto industry won. Today, 5.5% of us use public transportation or ride a bike, and suburbs reign supreme. 

This automobile dependency, Michael Kuby, a professor of geography and urban planning at ASU, said it is locked in a “vicious cycle” with urban sprawl. “Auto dependency leads to sprawl which reinforces auto dependency and so on,” Kuby said. 

The cycle of poor urban planning is also fortified by low gasoline taxes, free parking, freeway and beltway construction, suburban street design and lack of rural land-use protections. 

“Substantial spatial expansion of our cities was inevitable due to growing wealth, technological change, and market forces,” he said. “But the degree of sprawl in the U.S. has been exacerbated by many policies or lack thereof.” 

What does this have to do with loneliness? 

Suburbs are inherently lonely. Research by Men’s Health has found those in urban environments grew to value liveliness, diversity and other people while those in suburbia more strongly valued economic status. 

The research explains, “Immigrants and other urbanites used to have casual interactions on a daily basis ... once people started moving to the suburbs, they lost that sense of spontaneous social interaction.” 

Where children might have explored cities and public spaces in metropolitan areas, they are confined to suburban blockades and require being driven out of them to explore the greater world. This unnatural stifling of organic social interaction contributes to shyness and social anxiety later in life. 

Because suburbanites value economic wealth, they generally strive to own increasingly bigger properties. As a result, today’s homes are 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973. In 2013, inside these barren castles, 28% of people live completely alone. This compares to less than 6% who lived in isolation in 1915. 

Worst of all, there isn’t anywhere to go even if you could walk. Aside from a few parks and museums, neoliberal policies auction off all public space to commercial interests. Is paying $14 to see a movie or walking around the mall an enriching basis for social life? Public spaces in America require you to spend money to occupy them, further alienating the poor from social nourishment. 

Powerful business interests of the neoliberal 20th century created the suburbs to sell cars and expensive, inaccessible homes. People increasingly live in massive cookie-cutter homes they can only escape with wasteful automobiles. Worst of all? They look ugly.

Universities are making you lonely

Pop culture teaches young suburban minds that college is a vibrant self-affirming party that never ends. Media and film tell stories in universities in which people acquiesce into exciting social circles and being “open-minded” is all it takes to have the time of your life. 

This doesn’t reconcile with the previously mentioned research on rising loneliness in our generation. 

Movies like “Old School” and “Pitch Perfect” fail to represent a reality in which 64% of college students reported feeling very lonely over the past year. 

Going to college, especially out of state, means leaving your life behind. It's only natural for people to struggle when everything that previously brought them stability disappears. 

Rising tuition, rent and inflated class sizes all display a lack of public investment under neoliberal austerity. Can the 36% of college students who do not regularly get enough to eat be expected to pay steeply to be in a fraternity or sorority to make friends? 

Worst of all, colleges inundate you with the alienating sense that you are in constant competition with your peers. You cannot root for your cohort’s success, because they might soon occupy a graduate school slot or job interview you couldn’t secure. 

Much like the greater neoliberal economy, you are meant to constantly punch sideways in the interest of the bosses, rather than building solidarity and cooperation as equals. 

The full picture

There are millions who rightfully need prescription medication. There is also a legitimate concern about the space social media takes up in modern relationships. Regardless, it is the core of our economic and social institutions that are responsible for the plague of loneliness facing our generation. 

Until we universally guarantee housing, food and educational security to everyone, those without privilege will disproportionately face isolation. 

Until we fundamentally change our social structures to value closeness and proximity over economic status, children will grow up socially and developmentally stunted. 

Until we fundamentally change the inherent hierarchy of our corporate structures, too many people will lack control and be alienated from their work. 

"Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is a solitary boat floating in a sea of possible companions." – Robert Fulghum

Editor's note: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.


Reach the reporter at drustemp@asu.edu or follow @denzel_for on Twitter.

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