Everyone Is Getting Lonelier. Here's How Entrepreneurs Are Helping to Reverse the Trend.
Call it a health crisis, an epidemic or something else entirely, but the facts remain the same: Loneliness is a sweeping problem. The great irony of this widespread alienation is that it persists in spite of our increasingly connected, populous world.
Our planet is home to 7.4 billion people, with the technology to join them all. And yet, many individuals experience loneliness along the age spectrum.
- Seniors are lonely: 28 percent of people ages 65 and older live alone, and isolation correlates with physical and mental decline.
- Young people are lonely: In one study, generation Z and millennials reported higher loneliness levels than their predecessors.
- Many men are lonely: It's the biggest threat facing middle-aged men, more so than smoking or obesity. And social isolation among young men at times has been blamed as a trigger for radicalization or violence.
There's been much talk about how the government can address this topic. But what about the private sector? Google “entrepreneurs solving loneliness” and you’ll discover stories of founders learning to cope with their own isolation. (Yes, entrepreneurs get lonely, too.)
As an entrepreneur in the eldercare industry, I know seniors remain uniquely vulnerable to the ill effects of loneliness. I've seen the damage firsthand. On the bright side, I believe that where there is suffering, responsibility and opportunity for better solutions will follow. And if that suffering is widespread, there’s a big market for game-changing -- or potentially life-changing -- ideas. Entrepreneurs should be addressing social isolation as much as any other need. Perhaps even more so, given its ubiquity.
Solutions for seniors
Let's start, then, with eldercare and other healthcare-adjacent businesses. CareMore, a subsidiary of Anthem Inc., recognized the scope of the problem and found a potentially scalable solution that works for its clients.
Social isolation has a severe impact on seniors, so it’s in CareMore's best interests to keep their elderly patients social and happy. CareMore evaluated their patients for signs of social isolation and recruited employees to make weekly calls as part of a new “togetherness initiative.” The company's CEO reports the results have been positive not only for patients but also for volunteers. After all, togetherness is a two-way street.
In the United Kingdom, a country that appointed a Minister for Loneliness to address the issue, UnLtd has been recruiting social entrepreneurs for innovative solutions -- further proof there's great work to be done in the private sector. UnLTd's Transform Ageing is funding 19 entrepreneurs who seek to “revolutionise the approach to health, wellbeing and social care for people in later life.”
Technology in the mix
Technology plays a role for people of all ages. Artificial-intelligence (AI) tools can help reduce loneliness in meaningful ways if they supplement human interaction instead of trying to replace it.
Here’s an example of something that could work. I recently proposed a business idea for an app that could act as a facilitor to “adopt a mom or dad for the day.” Through the app, a senior would select a desired activity, define timeframes and parameters and then make a match with a qualified provider. I'm betting that many college students and others seeking part-time employment would be delighted to share a meal, go to a movie or take a walk in the park with an older person.
Apps that use machine-learning capabilities and code to connect people represent technology's promise in this area. Plenty of entrepreneurs already are creating AI companion bots that can act as instruments to alleviate loneliness. It’s too soon to say how effective this will be, so it's best not to lean too heavily on AI when human relationships are just a click or two away.
That goes for robots as helpers, friends or even lovers. People of all ages should spend fewer hours in front of screens and more time engaging with the world and the people in it.
It might seem counterintuitive, but technology even can be used to encourage less dependance on devices. (And that just might increase happiness and satisfaction.) Startups that emphasize face-to-face meetings are great examples of how this can look. In fact, entrepreneurs and leaders in all industries should do their part to reduce loneliness among their workforce.
As former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy wrote, “Our understanding of biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority.”
Murthy categorized loneliness as bad for both health and business, causing stress that leads to inflammation and increases the risk of “heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, obesity, and premature death.” On the flip side, Gallup research has discovered employees with strong social connections at work miss fewer days and are more productive and engaged.
Despite their many benefits, remote work options can increase feelings of loneliness and should be offset with social events designed to dig deeper than mere small talk. Stress and loneliness are closely correlated, so initiatives to reduce workplace burnout likely would help people feel more connected.
The best solutions to minimize loneliness in the workplace often come down to culture. Murthy recommends that companies evaluate the state of connections in the workplace, then design and model a culture that supports connections and high-quality relationships among colleagues and senior team members.
Government influence and society at large can't drive miraculous overnight improvement. Instead, private-sector leaders will need to dream up initiatives, develop products and foster programs so fewer of the world's 7.4 billion people feel isolation and despair.