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Why do so many men feel so lonely?

A combination of factors means straight white Western man have fewer friends on average than other identity groups.

Feeling lonely sucks. It also kills. Being deprived of social connection makes us physically and mentally unwell, and raises our risk of dying by 26 percent. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, a charity, the health impacts of loneliness are on par with smoking, a habit that has such huge health consequences that the world - and particularly the richest parts of it - has spent decades pouring huge amounts of time, money and other resources into weaning people off tobacco.

That campaign has been a huge success: the percentage of British adults who smoke fell from about 62 percent in 1948 to 14 percent in 2019. But there has been no similar decrease in loneliness. One study found that just under a quarter of UK adults say they feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. That was in 2018, two years before the coronavirus pandemic hit and people vastly cut back on their socialising. Since then, unsurprisingly, reports of loneliness have skyrocketed.

Interestingly, the identity group who seem to be most affected by this problem is also the group that is generally considered to hold the greatest amount of social and economic power: men, particularly, straight, white, Western ones.

Part of the reason for this correlation is that some of the things that are associated with increased loneliness are also associated with increased wealth. Take working long hours and being willing to move to a new place for a better job opportunity. Men are more likely to do both these things than women are. It’s one of the reasons they’re wealthier as a group. But it also makes it harder for them to build strong social connections; busyness and distance are not conditions under which relationships thrive.

Money-making isn’t the only example of something that society generally sees as positive coming with the unexpected side-effect of increasing male loneliness. There’s also the changing social norms around marriage and childcare. Over the last few decades, men have spent much more time with their kids and got divorced at a higher rate. (It’s not the increase in divorce itself that is often read as positive, but that it is seen as representing an increased ability for women to leave relationships they are unhappy in.) Both these things seem to make men lonelier, because more time on childcare means less time with friends, and because men are less likely to retain mutual friendships after a divorce than women are.

Few people would suggest that this means we should revert to 1950s gender roles. Instead, this is an example of how discovering and highlighting the trade-offs embedded within every economic or social phenomena gives us more information which can then help individuals and societies make better, more informed decisions. (Economics as a subject is very big on gathering information and making the best choices possible.) For example, being able to more accurately weigh the potential cost to your health and happiness against the various benefits that come with a higher salary or better job could be beneficial to those considering moving for work. Or it could inspire fathers and the institutions who have an interest in helping them to brainstorm ways to add more socialisation to child-rearing; setting up more parent-child community groups, say.

However, truly mitigating male loneliness and its accompanying health problems may require something a little more extreme. Research suggests that behind many of the factors that make men lonelier than women is the same fundamental problem: the gender norms and gendered expectations that society puts on men. Ultimately, many of the traits that are associated with masculinity, such as “restraint, independence and competitiveness”, are also traits that make human connection harder. The emphasis on how men should exhibit those traits tends to be more pronounced in white communities, non-queer spaces and in so-called ‘individualistic’ countries, like the UK and particularly like America. The result seems to be a lot of straight white men being a lot lonelier than they would be if the world smashed up some more of its gender norms.

Read our explainer on: social influences

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