“When the fear of loneliness is looming, remember I am at your side.”
Gang violence in London has once again featured strongly in the news, as politicians of all hues seek to justify their positions. Whether it’s turf warfare and/or drugs which fuel the appetite, the aspect which should concern us most is: what is the appeal for young people to join gangs in the first place?
The straightforward answer is the yearning for a sense of belonging, for a relationship of some kind. This is particularly evident for young people who have no stability in their home environment: young people in care are plagued with insecurity as they move from foster home to foster home, and often their school experience is similarly chaotic.
Some years ago I met with athlete Kriss Akabusi MBE, who was in care himself as a teenager. He explained how the yearning for belonging was so deep that any association, socially acceptable or unacceptable, would have answered that need. He joined the army; and that provided the stability and structure to help him look ahead.
We learned last week from the Office for National Statistics that the age group experiencing the highest proportion of loneliness “often/always” - by far - is the 16 to 24 year-olds. Some may put this down to the near addiction to social media, and that may indeed account for lack of personal peer group contact.
But families also have a role to play, and the extent of family fragmentation surely has a lot to answer for: it certainly does for young people in care. David Willetts writes about this in his book ‘The Pinch: how the Baby Boomers took their children’s future and why they should give it back’.
The number of babies born to unmarried mothers is now close to 50% of total births. While there are, of course, many deeply committed co-habiting parents who will provide a strong family unit, it’s a clear indicator that the number of children growing up without family security is rising. If the bonds between parent(s) and child are weak, they are particularly vulnerable to breaking in mid- to late- teens.
Each generation bears a heavy responsibility for the stability and security of its own children.
Loneliness is not, however, limited to young people. Old people may be better able to cope with it, but it’s only three months since Frank Field’s report was published, drawing attention to the very high numbers of old people literally starving from loneliness.
So I was intrigued to hear a suggestion over the weekend of building an app which could put lonely young people in touch with lonely old people, for both mutual company and assistance. Of course that presumes the old people could cope with the app, but that’s another problem. Speaking from my experience as a grandfather, I can see how this could be a very rewarding experience for many people.
Finally, of course, there’s faith: which can offer a complete antidote to loneliness in all situations. The quote at the top of this newsletter was inspired by the book of Isaiah (in the Bible), chapter 43, and it has given great comfort to many people.