Mikey Jones had been going to the Beehive pub in south London for a drink at least once a week since the 1960s. He usually ordered a pint of bitter, but on the night he met the woman who would become his wife, he had a gin and tonic to appear more sophisticated; on the afternoon his daughter was born, he had a stiff whisky.
The Beehive closed in 2018, as did another pub further up the road in south Norwood where Jones used to meet his friends. The latter is now a coffee shop serving flat whites and chai tea lattes and is crowded with young families and people with laptops – but for someone like Jones, who is 78, it doesn’t feel particularly welcoming. As a result, he mostly stays at home.
“I’ve lived alone since my wife died,” he says. “My daughter does come to visit but other than that I am mostly by myself with the telly on.”
Jones is just one of the 3.83 million people in the UK who are chronically lonely – a figure that has increased by more than half a million since the pandemic hit, according to the Office for National Statistics. Technology is often treated at the bogeyman but around the country, the mass closure of pubs and community spaces is fuelling a health epidemic of epic proportions.
“Pubs are the archetype of third space – somewhere that isn’t home or work, but a place that brings people together beyond the immediate family or work,” says Thomas Thurnell-Read, an author and lecturer at the University of Loughborough researching the impact fewer pubs is having on British society. “Traditional pubs have faced very challenging trading conditions and the steady closure of them around the country rings a lot of alarm bells.”
Two pubs a day are currently shutting down in England and Wales and campaigners have called for planning laws to protect them. It comes after The Crooked House pub in the West Midlands – once dubbed the UK’s “wonkiest” public house – was gutted in a fire and then demolished without full permission in August, provoking outrage in the community and beyond.
While this is an extreme example, it is an ongoing problem of the 21st century: since the year 2000, a quarter of British pubs have shut down – more than 13,000 in total – and in the first six months of this year, 383 pubs were permanently closed or used for other purposes.
The consequences are wide-reaching. An Open Arms report authored by Thurnell-Read found that 64 per cent of people said that their pub was one of the main places in the local area that they could socialise in, and 86 per cent said that when a pub closed the community suffered.
And while reducing the health impacts of excess drinking feels like a positive step, studies show we are consuming as much alcohol as we did two decades ago, the only difference is that we are now doing it from home. Equally, older regulars almost always drink in moderation and see the pub as somewhere to socialise rather than a place to glug tequila shots.
“If you are going to drink, you may as well get the boost from being with other people, and a British pub – particularly one that has been there for decades – is usually a place with a sense of community,” says Thurnell-Read. “It’s somewhere you can be among others in a low effort way. For the price of a drink you can read the paper or chat with regulars or with staff – it’s this low-level contact that doesn’t necessarily require any planning or downloading an app that is very beneficial for people of all ages.”
Generational pubs in particular are the places where people met their partners, attended birthday parties or wakes, or wet their baby’s head. In one particular study in London, Thurnell-Read spoke to a group of men who had watched all their communal spaces closing over the course of five years to make way for new coffee shops and expensive gastropubs.
“These pubs were a touchpoint with the past,” agrees Thurnell-Read. “Places with strong working class communities feel particularly fragmented now in all the swirling social and economic change. The result is a nagging sense of loneliness, with a boarded-up pub becoming one of the most visible manifestations of a community changing – and leaving you behind.”
And while this is particularly true for older demographics, research at University of Manchester has shown young adults who move cities also find themselves very isolated – particularly those who have to change jobs regularly. Only 45 per cent of under 40s feel as if they belong within their neighbourhood and without a community pub where they can meet people they haven’t necessarily been introduced to, there is no easy foundation for establishing a group of peers. It extends to students: this week, the BBC said that the biggest mental health issue for people arriving at freshers’ week was loneliness.
Equally, young couples are more likely than older ones to move into some of the newly built suburbs that contain thousands of new homes but very little in the way of community spirit. “When a pub closes, we feel its loss,” says Thurnell-Read, “but when there was nothing there in the first place, there is a disconnection from those third spaces and that bedrock of reliable low-key contact.”
This weakening of human connection isn’t merely a social problem; it is fast becoming a health emergency across the developed world. Earlier this summer, Vivek Murthy, the American surgeon general, released a report on the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” and the profound consequences it was having on mental and physical wellbeing.
Health issues he cited include a higher risk of strokes, dementia, early death and cardiovascular disease in the chronically lonely, as well as symptoms such as pain, insomnia, depression and anxiety for people of all ages.
“Loneliness is like hunger,” says Louise Hawkley, a principal research scientist at the University of Chicago. “Some people become withdrawn with it; others become irritable or sad. Like hunger, it’s a biological signal and an innate need starting at birth, as being with other humans is where our strength comes from and where we thrive. And like hunger, if you can’t ease loneliness by, say, seeing a friend, it will only get worse.”
Sadly, the unresolved ache of being alone when we need connection is a feeling too many Britons are well-versed in. On this side of the Atlantic, the situation has become so dire that we have appointed a minister for loneliness, Stuart Andrew, who has now released a follow-up report to Murthy’s with secretary of state for culture, media and sport Lucy Frazer. In it, they underline the British government’s commitment to spending £30 million on outreach groups, as well as their plans for a public awareness campaign.
But are a few extra volunteers and some nationwide posters really going to cut it? Or do we need to fight to ensure that the local spaces we once valued stay open?
“A lack of community spirit is one of the biggest problems we are facing in the loneliness epidemic,” agrees David Utley-Williams, a director at outreach programme, the Cares Family, which works with people suffering from loneliness.
Fewer people now know their neighbours, go to church or are part of local groups. At the same time, more of us live alone: the number of single-person homes has increased by eight per cent over the last 10 years in the UK, and ranges from a quarter of households in London to 36 per cent in Scotland.
Technology plays a part. Screens dominate: where we would once have ordered a takeaway or booked a holiday or train ticket by talking to another person, now we do both online. Work meetings and job interviews take place on Zoom, and dating has shifted from sweaty house parties and heaving Friday night pubs to the apps that we trawl through from bed.
But Utley-Williams argues that the problem isn’t just technological. “People don’t feel like they belong in the neighbourhoods that they live in,” he says. “Communities are becoming less socially integrated; the world is changing rapidly around us and people don’t always feel like they are part of that change.”
Men and women have also reacted to this shift differently. In research undertaken over the course of nearly 20 years, Hawkley has noticed women are far more likely to admit to loneliness. “Although we don’t know if this is because they are more in tune with their states of minds or emotions, whether they’re more anxious about it, or whether they are in fact lonelier.”
What she is sure of is that men and women need different types of contact. There are three dimensions to loneliness; intimate connectedness, which usually means a spouse or partner; relational connectedness, which is someone trustworthy or supportive to lean on, such as a very close friend or sibling; and collective connectedness, which is the sense of belonging to a group. Both genders need intimacy, but women are far more likely to miss a lack of bonded friendship, while men err towards group companionship – which, typically, they have found in pubs.
“There can be a condescending sense that women have strong friendships while men just talk about football,” says Thurnell-Read “But even if that’s what they do, it’s social contact – male bonding rituals are hugely important, and many of them happen in a pub where a good manager who knows his regulars are will introduce people to each other and deepen these connections.”
Government policy aside, there are still steps we can take to keep pubs open and at the heart of communities. For Thurnell-Read, they include adapting them by day to create more of a café-like environment where women and babies and laptop workers are welcome, and by introducing innovations such as small lending libraries. “Then at night, offer a great range of beers and turn back into a more traditional drinking environment,” he says.
And while this may be a departure from the classic boozers that men like Mikey Jones miss so much, keeping Britain’s once-vibrant community spirit alive feels like an increasingly urgent task – and one we need to resolve by any means necessary.