Loneliness in Midlife: A Growing Gap Between US and Europe

Summary: New research highlights a significant loneliness gap between middle-aged adults in the U.S. and their European counterparts, with Americans experiencing higher levels.

The study utilized data from over 53,000 participants to explore loneliness trends across three generations, finding that U.S. adults report increasing loneliness, particularly among younger generations. Key factors contributing to this discrepancy include cultural norms, socioeconomic factors, and weaker social safety nets in the U.S., suggesting a need for policy interventions to address this public health issue.

The findings underscore loneliness as an endemic challenge, emphasizing the role of social connections and support policies in mitigating its impact.

Key Facts:

  1. Generational Increase in Loneliness: Younger generations in the U.S. report higher levels of loneliness than older ones, indicating a growing trend of isolation.
  2. Cultural and Socioeconomic Factors: Differences in cultural norms, such as individualism and social media use, alongside economic challenges like job insecurity and income inequality, contribute to the U.S.’s higher loneliness rates.
  3. Need for Policy Intervention: The research calls for tailored policy interventions, such as enhancing social safety nets and promoting family and work benefits, to combat loneliness and foster social connections.

Source: APA

Middle-aged adults in the U.S. tend to report significantly higher levels of loneliness than their European counterparts, possibly due in part to weaker family ties and greater income inequality, according to research published by the American Psychological Association. 

“Loneliness is gaining attention globally as a public health issue because elevated loneliness increases one’s risk for depression, compromised immunity, chronic illness and mortality,” said lead author Frank Infurna, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

This shows a man sitting alone on a bench.
Compared with European counterparts, adults in the U.S. reported significantly higher levels of loneliness. Credit: Neuroscience News

“Our research illustrates that people feel lonelier in some countries than in others during middle age. It also sheds light on reasons this may be occurring and how governments can address it with better policies.”

The research was published in the journal American Psychologist.

Considering the increased public health focus in the United States (as evidenced by the surgeon general’s 2023 advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation) and abroad (countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan have appointed ministers to address the problem), the researchers explored how loneliness has historically changed over time and how it differs across countries. 

Infurna and his colleagues examined data from ongoing, nationally representative longitudinal surveys from the United States and 13 European countries, with more than 53,000 participants from three different generations (the Silent Generation, baby boomers and Generation X).  Data were collected from 2002 to 2020 and only included responses given when participants were between the ages of 45 and 65. 

“We focused on middle-aged adults because they form the backbone of society and empirical evidence demonstrates that U.S. midlife health is lagging other industrialized nations,” said Infurna.

“Middle-aged adults carry much of society’s load by constituting most of the workforce, while simultaneously supporting the needs of younger and older generations in the family.”

Compared with European counterparts, adults in the U.S. reported significantly higher levels of loneliness. This “loneliness gap” widened with younger generations (late baby boomers and Generation X) reporting greater loneliness than older ones (early baby boomers and the Silent Generation).

While the U.S. showed consistent historical increases in midlife loneliness during the period data were collected, some European nations displayed more varied patterns. For instance, England and Mediterranean Europe demonstrated similar increases in loneliness for later-born participants (late baby boomers and Generation X). Continental and Nordic Europe demonstrated stable or even slightly declining levels across generations.

The study identified differences in cultural norms, socioeconomic influences and social safety nets between the U.S. and other European countries as potential explanations for the loneliness gap between the U.S. and Europe. Cultural norms in the U.S. are often characterized by individualism, increased social media use, declining social connections and increasing political polarization.

The pressure faced by U.S. middle-aged adults is also further compounded by a higher residential mobility, weaker family ties, increasing job insecurity and income inequality. Additionally, social safety nets in the U.S. tend to be less comprehensive compared with some European nations regarding family leave, unemployment protection and childcare support.

“The cross-national differences observed in midlife loneliness should alert researchers and policymakers to better understand potential root causes that can foster loneliness and policy levers that can change or reverse such trends,” said Infurna. 

The study also found that loneliness is generally on the rise compared with previous generations across both the U.S. and Europe, with Europe’s numbers only slightly behind those of the United States.

The researchers said that loneliness as a public health issue requires policy interventions tailored to national contexts and generational shifts, including promoting family and work benefits, and reducing income inequality. 

Loneliness as a global public health issue has called attention to the importance of advancing social connections, according to Infurna. The study defends the promotion of social safety nets, through generous family and work policies, which may lessen midlife loneliness by reducing financial pressures and work-family conflict, in addition to strengthening job security and workplace flexibility. Infurna said such practices would also address health and gender inequities.

“The U.S. surgeon general advisory report coupled with nations appointing ministers of loneliness have shined a bright light on loneliness being a global public health issue,” he said.

“As opposed to being considered an epidemic – an outbreak that spreads rapidly and affects many individuals – our findings paint a picture akin to loneliness being endemic, regularly occurring within an area or community.”

About this loneliness and psychology research news

Author: Rosie Falodun
Source: APA
Contact: Rosie Falodun – APA
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: The findings will appear in American Psychologist

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  1. I’m a European living in the US. A great reason for loneliness that is completely missed by the study is housing policies. Those dumb, racist, elitist, segregating policies like single family zoning, commercial – residential separation, etc. force people to live spread out in the suburbs, physically far from family, friends, coworkers etc. Combine it with longer working hours and moving for jobs, it makes it a lot harder to see people outside of work. They are also one of the root causes of other problems mentioned in the study like physical health (people just sit and drive) or financial hardship (they create a housing shortage that make rent or mortgage unaffordable). In Europe those policies don’t exist, people can walk, take public transportation, have shorter drives to do anything, meeting with friends and family is much easier

  2. The US will not find a solution as it’s culturally based and Europe will deteriorate further since this is a product of the modern industrial paradigm. The digital revolution will likely take this into very strange places.

    Connected communities and families create meaning and purpose (even in disfunction). As we have moved to value other things and advertising focused on individual consumption rather than our genetic propensity towards community, we feel disconnected and lonely.

    It becomes more worrisome in the future as children today are denied community and even parental bonding due to digital technology.

    Solutions are known but exist outside the most profitable and “productive” models. So, I question any effective effort from a corporate government perspective.

  3. There’s another important factor that I didn’t see mentioned: the practice of cuckoldry.

    In much of Europe, cuckoldry is a socially-accepted and well-established activity, especially for those in the 30-year-old to 60-year-old age range. It’s a great way for both men and women to meet new people on a frequent and on-going basis.

    In America, on the other hand, cuckoldry is not seen as socially acceptable in most communities. It’s somewhat prevalent within the most liberal areas of the nation (mainly San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Minneapolis, and Brooklyn (New York)), but otherwise it is not widely practiced, and thus does not provide opportunities for middle-aged people to meet others.

  4. I think this can be attributed to the huge spike in the crime rate. People are less likely to walk down to the corner coffee shop, store or pub to meet friends. Young people are at serious risk for being roofed. This is a sad situation.

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