A report by Onward, a centre-right think tank, highlights a worrying decline in neighbourliness and a “collapse in community” among younger generations, adding that the problem was exacerbated over the last year due to the pandemic.
Through survey analysis and its own polling, Onward’s report, titled Age of Alienation, found that the interpersonal social networks of young adults between 18 and 34 years old appear to be narrowing.
Around one in five of 18 to 34-year-olds say they have one or no close friends, triple the number of people who said the same in 2011 and 2012. The think tank also found that historical trends were inverting, with older generations now typically having more close friends compared to younger groups.
The report also found a loss of trust among young people, as they appear to be around half as likely to say they think other people are trustworthy as they were 60 years ago.
Young people between 18 to 24 are also more likely to distrust their neighbours (48 per cent) than trust them (35 per cent), and three times more likely not to trust their neighbours than people over the age of 65 (15 per cent).
This younger generation is also half as likely to speak to their neighbours, with a third less likely to borrow or exchange favours from them, as they were in 1998.
Onward describes these figures as a “paradox of virtue”, in which young people belong to the most socially conscious generations in recent history, but are also the “least socially attached to interpersonal networks or to their neighbourhood”.
The report’s authors wrote: “Despite the spirit of reciprocity engendered by the pandemic, on several measures the ‘social fabric gap’ between generations appeared to have worsened in the last year.”
They pointed towards an increase in the gap in “generalised social trust” between people over the age of 35 and under 35s. The gap increased from five percentage points in 2018, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, to nine percentage points this year.
“Trust in neighbours and family all declined at a much faster rate among younger generations than older generations since 2018,” said the authors.
“This suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated the existing trend of lower community engagement among young people.”
The think tank made a series of recommendations to the UK government to combat the decline in community engagement, which include introducing a national civic service “to revive civic participation among young people”.
It also suggested offering young people “civic awards” such as writing off student loan debt, offering credits toward digital or vocational training or a rebate on national insurance for volunteering.
Other recommendations included creating “automatic rights” for communities to take over abandoned or underused public spaces to create hubs, as well as creating 500,000 new reduced rent homes to help young people “put down roots and save up towards home ownership”.
Will Tanner, director of Onward, said: “Young people are suffering an epidemic of loneliness that, if left unattended, will erode the glue that holds our society together.
“After decades of community decline and fifteen months of rolling lockdowns, young people have fewer friends, trust people less, and are more alienated from their communities than ever before. And it is getting worse with every generation.
“This is a crisis that demands a bold response. National civic service and rewards for time spent volunteering are just some of the ways we could encourage a new culture of connection.
“In truth, we may need to go much further. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that human connection and local place deserve a much greater place in our political debate than they have enjoyed in the past.”
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