If you’ve got the money, you can now Rent-a-Friend, pay for cuddles, or dine with strangers. Our reaction to these services tends to vary, in keeping with how intimate they are – cuddle parties seem weirder than dinner parties – but the basic trade-off of cash for connection is the same in each case.
And is there really anything wrong with these services? We applaud befriending and visiting schemes for the elderly but judge a 30-something who might pay for a walk. All of us, though, need social connection. If we support programmes that ensure the elderly have company, why don’t we do the same for the young?
The basic view is that younger people should have the resources to find and create their own friendships and romances. But many younger people are clearly having trouble in this department. The Mental Health Foundation’s Lonely Society report found that 18- to 34-year-olds were more likely to suffer from loneliness than those over 55, and it suggested that loneliness might be having a cohort effect, with younger generations feeling progressively more isolated.
It’s also the case that many of the health effects associated with loneliness are cumulative: if we want to prevent loneliness-related cardiovascular disease among 60-year-olds, we need to start addressing social connection among people in their 20s.
But we don’t focus on developing social support for younger people. If you’re too old for after-school programmes, too young for a friendly visitor, and not feeling down enough for a helpline, you’re on your own. In this situation, paying for offline company when none is around might start to seem like a viable option.
I’m not in favour of paying for social connection. But I’m also not in favour of people feeling so alone that paying starts to seem reasonable. Younger people are facing enormous social strain right now: there are fewer workplaces that offer steady colleagues, fewer affordable neighbourhoods that offer parks and public spaces, and fewer jobs that offer predictable hours.
And it’s the private market, not government policy, that’s responding to all this stress. The Berkeley university sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild writes about how – as our lives become more difficult and solitary – it’s the market that’s offering solutions. We can now pay strangers to walk our dogs, care for ageing parents, host birthday parties and tend to family graves.
If we’re prepared to pay for all these services, it’s only a matter of time until paying for connection in the form of walks, coffee dates or dinners starts to seem much more mainstream.
The market shouldn’t be responding to our need for social connection. But it’s hard to criticise the market when there’s so little else in place. It’s true that younger folks can join crowdsourced meet-up events, but those groups often require a degree of social confidence and stamina that many people lack.
It’s also the case that one of the worst effects of loneliness is to make you wary of unstructured social situations. When I was quite lonely in my early 30s, I signed up for a meet-up event at a Toronto art gallery and was so overwhelmed by the gaggle of strangers I saw near the entrance that I cruised right past, pretending not to see them.
The growing market for social connection is proof of unmet social needs. We could crowd the market out through measures that address some of the triggers of loneliness, such as low incomes and unaffordable housing. But we probably won’t.
In a decade or so, paying for connection may seem as ordinary as paying for therapy. The companionship market will make us uncomfortable, and we’ll criticise it, but it will persist. The need for social connection is too primal: if it’s the market that’s offering us the chance to walk and talk with someone who seems like a friend, we’ll be heading towards it, not turning away.