Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

On our own: Social distancing is making our loneliness visible

The practice of social distancing, implemented as a health measure, has had the side effect of revealing that we were a socially isolated society long before the COVID-19 outbreak, writes contributor Ainsley Hawthorn.

Public health measure has revealed we were socially isolated long before COVID-19, writes Ainsley Hawthorn

We were a socially isolated society long before the COVID-19 outbreak hit, writes contributor Ainsley Hawthorn. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Two of my close friends recently held an outdoor exchange of vows in lieu of their wedding, which had to be postponed until next summer due to the pandemic. About 15 guests gathered on a misty St. John's hilltop at twilight, spreading picnic blankets on the ground a safe distance apart, to hear the couple pledge their commitment to each other in sickness and in health, which seemed particularly meaningful in these strange times.

As I looked around our little group of friends — sitting alone or in pairs, with the occasional group of four where two households had bubbled together — I was struck by how the practice of social distancing, implemented as a health measure, has had the side effect of putting our private living arrangements on public display.

It's revealed that we were a socially isolated society long before the COVID-19 outbreak.

In streets, in parks, and in stores, you'll find the same pattern everywhere you look: a community divided into ones and twos, the scattered family with children the only larger grouping. Now that we're divvied up into our respective households wherever we go, we're confronted with how small those households really are, how few social connections we have in our inner circles.

According to the 2016 census, Canadian households have, on average, just 2.4 members. Since the country was founded, there's been a steady downward trend in the number of people sharing each home, from an average of 5.6 people per household 150 years ago, to 4.6 people 100 years ago, to 3.5 people 50 years ago, to 2.4 people today.

People participate in an outdoor yoga class in Toronto in June. 'Like many Western societies, we've also cultivated a culture that lionizes independence, sometimes at the expense of companionship,' writes Hawthorn. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

The decline can be traced to a number of cultural and economic shifts that have taken place in our society over the past century and a half.

The increasing availability of birth control, the diminishing influence of religion, and the rise of women in the workforce have all contributed to a reduction in the number of children Canadians are having. Meanwhile, divorces have become more socially acceptable and easier to obtain, so unhappy couples are going their separate ways.

Living alone or with just one other person doesn't necessarily mean you'll be lonely, but it certainly increases your risk of loneliness.

Like many Western societies, we've also cultivated a culture that lionizes independence, sometimes at the expense of companionship.

We expect children to fly the nest as soon as they reach adulthood. For economic reasons, many young people have no other choice. In an agricultural society, a child might stay with their parents and tend the family farm until they eventually inherit it, but, in our post-industrial society, many jobs are knowledge-based and workers need to be mobile to access educational and employment opportunities.

Apart from the economic impetus to leave home, young adults also face intense social pressure to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. In recent years, as a tight job market and soaring real estate prices have forced many millennials to stay with their parents longer than expected or to move back home after living on their own, there has been widespread mockery of this "boomerang" generation.

The pandemic has heightened our isolation — but it didn't create it, writes Hawthorn. (The Associated Press)

Financial autonomy and solo living have become synonymous with maturity. Still, despite how often today's young adults are criticized for being overly dependent on their families, only a quarter of Canadian adults aged 25 to 29 actually live with their parents.

At the other end of the life spectrum, the vast majority of seniors also live independently, either alone or as part of a couple, and, when health issues arise, many transition into senior residences or long-term care facilities instead of moving in which their children.

As a result, while once it was usual for three or four generations of a family to live together, most of us now share our homes with only our romantic partners or minor children, and the number of Canadians living alone has more than doubled over the past 35 years, from 1.7 million in 1981 to four million in 2016.

Living alone or with just one other person doesn't necessarily mean you'll be lonely, but it certainly increases your risk of loneliness.

The pandemic has heightened our isolation. We can't welcome friends into our homes, we can't enjoy relaxed chats with servers or baristas, we can't visit family in long-term care. While we might use technology to keep in contact, it doesn't replace the comfort of physically touching someone we care about.

The pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine the way we live, says Hawthorn. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

COVID, though, didn't shatter our society — it was already fractured into many tiny pieces. Even before the outbreak, an Angus Reid study showed that around 48 per cent of Canadians felt lonesome, for reasons like spending too much time by themselves, having no one to talk to, or not having enough friends.

The pandemic simply brought the solitude of our modern living situations into the light of day. Will this unprecedented opportunity to see our society's private lives laid out before our eyes motivate us to reimagine the way we're choosing to live?

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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