America’s Loneliness Epidemic Squeezes the Middle
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Loneliness has been one of the greatest harms of the pandemic, and some people are more afflicted than others. In general, those at the very top and the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder have had the most chances to meet and socialize, while those in between have suffered the worst consequences.
Start with those in the higher socioeconomic tiers. I am not at the elite level of CEOs or heads of state. But from my own experience I can say that such individuals have many opportunities to socialize.
I have been to conferences, for instance, at which everyone is required to test for Covid each morning, under the guidance of trained professionals. That arrangement is expensive, but some groups can afford it. I have also been to a conference held in the winter in Arizona at a large, nice resort, with most of the sessions outdoors.
On a more global scale, a G-20 meeting was held last fall in Rome. While the full details of that get-together are not public, it is very likely that the standards for testing, vaccination and ventilation were strict.
These precautions make sense for presidents and prime ministers. The case is less clear for comparable investments to make meetings for lesser diplomats safe. And so while the leaders are getting together and talking, those lower in the pecking order may have to resort to Zoom calls.
When it comes to politics, the actual result is a rather unwelcome centralization of power. The people at the top are building connections and staying well-informed. Members of the bureaucracy are more stagnant in their understanding and political reach. The highest of elites also have the comfort of private planes, which are going to carry less infection risk than flying business class or first class, not to mention coach.
At least until the omicron strain, many of the elites seemed to have a belief that “people like us just don’t get Covid” — and to some extent they were right. So a lot of get-togethers were based on simple trust and the knowledge that the people at the party had not just come from working eight hours on the floor at Costco.
In some ways elites may have found it easier to meet with other elites. CEOs, for instance, have been having many fewer face-to-face meetings with subordinates. That gives them more time to do other things, including socializing with other elites, or traveling to favorable time zones. Some wealthy people have “followed the seasons,” spending the winter in Florida and the summer somewhere milder. In both cases, the better climate can ease socializing.
What about those in the lower socioeconomic tiers? Data is hard to come by, nor can I speak from my own experience. But it stands to reason that many simply have not had time to get informed about all the dangers involved with Covid-19, while others may be actively hostile to elite opinion, including the available body of scientific evidence. That is highly unfortunate, for their health and for those around them, but one consequence may be that they have continued their socializing at pre-pandemic levels.
Poorer individuals are also far more likely to be working in public-facing service jobs. In many of those jobs, such as at Walmart or McDonalds, there are coworkers to socialize with. There is workplace chatter that an adjunct professor teaching remotely does not experience.
Of course, some kinds of socializing are preferable to others, and some groups more privileged; a desert resort is more convivial than the stock room at a big-box retailer. And while the pandemic has left a lot of people very lonely — many of the elderly in nursing homes, for example, have had a difficult time maintaining and extending relationships — it’s pointless to debate which group is loneliest. Still, I might argue for some sympathy for Northerners in midlevel jobs who work alone or remotely. Think of academics, accountants, middle managers.
We should all be aware that not everyone has been able to resume normal social life to the same degree. In January 2022, America remains an emotionally damaged nation.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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