View: There's a growing loneliness economy to tap

Given how increasingly lonely the people of this lonely planet are – we keep being reminded that there is no Planet B – could the business world ignore a golden opportunity to capitalise on it? Globally, a new ‘loneliness economy‘ is rapidly taking shape.

US surgeon general Vivek Murthy has been fighting loneliness for a while now. He’s been at it at least since he published a 2017 piece, ‘Work and the Loneliness Epidemic’ (rb.gy/flwppa), in the Harvard Business Review, following it up in his 2020 book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, and via his role in the recent reshaping of US policy to acknowledge social connection as ‘a fundamental human need, as essential to survival as food, water, and shelter’. So, it may have been inevitable that WHO would identify loneliness as a serious threat to world health.

What can be done to counteract rising loneliness? In early 2018, British prime minister Theresa May established the world’s first ministry dedicated to addressing ‘loneliness’. Not everyone was impressed, though. CBS talk show host Stephen Colbert noted, ‘They’ve defined the most ineffable human problem and come up with the most cold, bureaucratic solution.’ The ‘cold, bureaucratic solution’, however, quickly spread elsewhere. Japan appointed its own loneliness minister in 2021, as suicide rates in that country had increased for the first time in 11 years.

Deemed the ‘loneliness economy,’ an expanding cohort of businesses is sensing the opportunity to provide attractive, marketed relationships as a means of reducing social isolation. The promise of facilitated human contact has turned into a marketing opportunity goldmine, as evidenced by the proliferation of co-living and collaborative workspaces, not to mention thousands of dating sites. A number of services – such as providing rented companions, hugging apps, massive open online courses, robot pets – have rapidly become popular in different countries.

An increasing number of creative solutions, such as an anti-loneliness club in California, companions known as ‘Handsome Weeping Boys’ in Japan (reminiscent of the professional mourners in Kalpani Lajmi’s 1993 film, Rudaali, based on Mahasweta Devi’s 1979 short story of the same name), and the ‘House of Books and Friends’ in Manchester, are also contributing to the loneliness economy.

AI was bound to creep into the domain sooner rather than later. Chatbots, which perhaps perpetuate loneliness while simulating relationships, have found a role. These days, it’s easy and inexpensive for ‘Theodores’ to communicate with ‘Samanthas’ a la Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her.The emergence of a ‘loneliness economy,’ however, presents moral dilemmas for the market-driven strategy of managing human emotions. It’s a sinister example of contemporary capitalism, where businesses take advantage of people’s desire for genuine human connections. The graver question still stands. Is it possible to treat loneliness without addressing its root causes? And the fundamental cause of the long-brewing loneliness epidemic is the breakdown of institutions. According to political scientist Robert D Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which draws on massive data that show Americans’ shifting behaviour, the unprecedented collapse in social capital – civic, social, associational, and political life since 1960 – has caused US citizens to become more estranged from one another.

According to cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti’s 2019 book, A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion, chronic forms of loneliness didn’t exist before the 19th century. Capitalism and secularism (in the Western sense of disassociation from anything religious) are the parents of contemporary loneliness.

Loneliness has been exacerbated since the 18th century by the emergence of privacy, which, being a consumable good, is again a byproduct of market capitalism.

How big is the ‘loneliness economy’? According to a McKinsey analysis, over the next decade, it may contribute to Asia’s $10 trillion consumer market. Are we then coming up with a hot-button business solution to ‘the most ineffable human problem’? If the getaway vacation industry is about ‘getting to be alone’, this lies on the other end of the spectrum. Solitude doesn’t equate to loneliness. Loneliness is defined as ‘failed solitude’ in social historian David Vincent’s 2020 book A History of Solitude. It’s complicated, for sure.

But the economy of loneliness should be booming as ‘demand’ grows to be not alone.