Middle Aged Americans Are Lonelier Than Their European Counterparts

Middle aged Americans are experiencing significantly higher levels of loneliness than their European peers.

Research published in American Psychologist found that baby boomers in particular are experiencing high levels of loneliness.

“We found that later-born cohorts of middle-aged adults in the U.S. reported higher levels of loneliness compared to earlier-born cohorts. For the U.S., England, and Mediterranean Europe, silent generation middle-aged adults reported lower levels of loneliness compared to baby boomers and generation X who reported higher levels of loneliness. We did not observe a similar pattern for middle-aged adults from Continental and Nordic Europe; loneliness showed stability across the cohorts or generations examined,” Frank Infurna, PhD, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University told Theravive.

“The magnitude of differences in loneliness in the U.S. with the other nations studied was surprising. This was eye-opening to us and points to more intervention and policy work needing to be done to help alleviate loneliness, not only in the U.S., but across the world.”

As part of their research, Infurna and colleagues looked at data from surveys involving the United States and 13 countries in Europe. Data was collected from more than 53 thousand people across three generations: the silent generation (often regarded as those born between 1928 and 1945), baby boomers (typically considered those born between 1946 to 1964) and Generation X (usually considered as those born between 1965 to 1980). 

“Of the research done on loneliness, little has explicitly focused on middle-aged adults –– those aged 40 through 65 years. We were particularly interested in studying middle-aged adults because of the vital role they play in society. Middle-aged adults constitute most of the workforce, while also supporting the needs of younger and older generations in the family. Furthermore, recent research has shown that life expectancy in the U.S. is stagnating if not declining (largely due to increasing mortality rates amongst working age adults, ages 16-64) and middle-aged adults today are reporting poorer mental and physical health compared to same aged peers in the 1990s and early 2000s. We wanted to examine whether this pattern of declining mental and physical health amongst middle-aged adults extends to loneliness and explore whether peer nations in Europe exhibit similar patterns of historical change to that of the US,” Infurna said. 

Loneliness is increasingly being recognised as a serious global public health issue.

“Researchers have equated loneliness to being as dangerous as smoking. Loneliness increases one’s vulnerability to sickness, depression, chronic illness, and premature death. The U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory report in 2023 documenting an epidemic of loneliness and the importance of advancing social connection. The UK and Japan have appointed ministers of loneliness. Three objectives set forth by the loneliness minster in the UK include, (1) promoting an agenda of raising awareness and building the national conversation on loneliness, (2) drive a lasting shift so that relationships and loneliness are considered in policymaking, and (3) improve the evidence base on loneliness,” Infurna said.

Nearly one quarter of the world’s population feels lonely. Infurna argues that policy makers should take steps to reverse increasing rates of loneliness around the world.

“Advancing social connections and alleviating loneliness should be an actionable agenda item for nations across the World. Because the included nations differed in their policy models, our findings underscore potential policy levers that could be harnessed to reverse trends of increasing loneliness. This could be through the development of policies that reduce social and economic inequalities and deteriorations in employment opportunities, which was especially evident post Great Recession for late baby boomers and generation X. Promoting the social safety net through generous family and work policies could lessen midlife loneliness by reducing financial pressures and work-family conflict, as well as enhancing job security and workplace flexibility and addressing health and gender inequities,” he said.

“The need to belong is innate and a fundamental need. Feelings of loneliness arise from a perceived gap between current levels and desired need for social connection. When this disconnection persists, it can have wide-ranging ramifications.”

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