Nigel Van Wieck, Q Train, 1990 (© 2024 Nigel Van Wieck, @nigelvanwieck/Licensed by

American loneliness has, not for the first time, given birth to a bustling new industry. Last year, in a truly conversation-changing move, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an eighty-two-page warning about the dangers of this growing public-health crisis, which impacts both the mental and physical health of far too many Americans. In the wake of the report, there has been a surge of new nonprofit initiatives and tech startups targeting loneliness, as well as a lot of handwringing in the press.

The loneliness-amelioration industry, now in the boom segment of its life cycle, generally assumes that loneliness is a personal problem to be solved via low-cost hacks like saying hello to your neighbors, being nicer to your political opponents, putting down your smartphone, downloading a new app, or volunteering in your local community. Much of this is perfectly good advice, but none of it addresses, or even recognizes, the carefully constructed cultural and institutional architecture that produces American loneliness. Loneliness-production has been a big business for a very long time, and its profits are astronomical. The central question is whether Americans can carry out something akin to a mass revolt before this industry drains all the vitality out of the American project.

We should start with asking what loneliness actually is. In the dominant social-scientific framework of our day, loneliness is defined as a discrepancy between the social life one has and the social life one would like to have. This definition is widely employed because it makes room for the fact that one can be lonely in a house full of loving, caring family members, just as one can be not lonely on a solo hiking expedition. But this definition’s capaciousness comes at a cost. The dominant framework is so thin as to be of little use in understanding why any particular person or society is afflicted with loneliness, or what to do about it. This framework says that, for reasons that are largely unclear, we just happen to want something different than what we have. It implies that the solution is simply to try harder to get whatever it is we want.

But if this prevailing framework is inadequate, we still need to understand what it is that we all seem to want—or, rather, need—and how to get it. Since we know that the mere presence of others is not the opposite of loneliness, then what is? The truest answer, if not the most obvious, is that the opposite of loneliness is shared agency. When you and I value the same things, and pursue those things together, what might have been a competitive, zero-sum relationship becomes one of solidarity—of shared risk and reward, of mutual aid, even of loving care or shared identity. The human species has developed in contexts of shared agency, from families cooperating to find food and protect their young, to religious communities collectively pursuing holiness and good works, to tribes pursuing the directives of their local shaman via ceremony or warfare, even to criminal gangs cooperating to defeat their rivals. This tendency toward shared agency can be turned to either good or bad purposes, but it accounts for most of our success as a species and, when well directed, for much of what makes a flourishing life here and now.


But human agency is not a simple thing. It is certainly much more than acting freely in the absence of external constraint. To act arbitrarily or impulsively, or under the influence of drugs, alcohol, mental illness, or even very strong emotion, is to act with less than complete agency. Full human agency requires both “task and purpose,” as the U.S. military puts it: I need to have in mind a purpose of deep—ideally ultimate—importance to me, and I need to have tasks before me that I have the power to take on and that move me in a meaningful way toward my purpose. Without both task and purpose, agency dies, and along with it, the possibility of solidarity; common projects are what activate the virtue of solidarity. On the flip side, solidarity is what makes agency possible. One cannot develop, maintain, or refine a sense of task and purpose without other agents. There is a virtuous circle here: we need agency to work with one another, and we need one another to realize our own agency. 

The big story is that American agency is withering fast, and in several ways. In a recent national survey, my colleague Rick Weissbourd found that 58 percent of young adults reported a lack of “meaning or purpose” in their lives. Without purpose, no task can be anything but drudgery or distraction. Indeed, it is a recipe for a life adrift, of bouncing from thing to thing with no sense of ownership or progress. My own college students often express the expectation that their lucrative white-collar jobs will be a pure “grind” of fifty-to-eighty-hour weeks for decades. And who could find meaning in working oneself to the bone to goose Goldman’s or Microsoft’s share price by a few percentage points, producing products and services that often seem to make the world a worse place for people to live? Such work can only be done in pursuit of either personal financial security—desperately necessary in a go-it-alone society like ours—or of that shadowy, unfulfilling thing we call status.

The big story is that American agency is withering fast, and in several ways.

Indeed, much of modern work is designed to limit the agency of workers, which means that even if they do have a sense of purpose drawn from their family, church, friend group, etc., they are not empowered to pursue it in their working lives. Management science was founded in the early twentieth century by the theorist Frederick W. Taylor with the specific goal of eliminating as much know-how, judgment, and decision-making power as possible from the jobs of factory workers, who in an earlier era might have been craftsmen exercising creativity and taste in the production of useful goods.

The tight concentration of creative control in the hands of a few anointed managers has gradually spread to white-collar work, with the growth of “best practices,” bureaucratic micromanagement, and, most recently, AI-powered surveillance of office workers. Depending on your point of view, the rise of artificial intelligence either threatens or promises to pound a few final nails into the coffin of human agency. There are few tasks in the work-world we are making that can be turned toward any truly human purpose, and so fewer and fewer workers will have the experience of working alongside true comrades—people one might be willing to make sacrifices for. In this system, we are all mercenaries scrambling to grab some scrap of security for ourselves and those we love.

If our work lives have been deprived of task and purpose, this is just one aspect in an accelerating concentration of agency in America. Many Americans increasingly feel dwarfed or even impotent in their interactions with massive, faceless forces and institutions. All power, whether it be governmental, commercial, financial, or technological, seems to rest in the hands of a few insider-trading, Epstein Island–visiting, geriatric elites who barely need to pretend that they’re working for the common good. They hide behind sanitized PR and telephone menus designed to frustrate your attempt to speak with a person. If you don’t like it, you can cuss out the online chatbot for a few minutes before you shake your head, close the window, and go on with your day.


Housing is another major site of agency-hoarding. For many Americans, home ownership—the main engine of wealth accumulation—seems forever out of reach, as real estate is snapped up by private equity and baby-boomer homeowners cling to houses far too large for them and block the construction of new housing in their communities. This is a major problem because in American society ownership is vitally important both economically and psychologically. An owner can, as a general rule, rest relatively secure in the stability of her life. She may even have enough security to take some risks, start new ventures, make mistakes. She has a strong personal stake in the fate of her community, and so is more likely to take responsibility for its future. Employee-renters have no such stake or security. We must do what we are told at every stage, regardless of what we might value and believe, because we’re all one email—from HR or perhaps from the property-management company—away from social death.

This is no way to live. And it is no way for our democratic experiment to survive, much less succeed. Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln believed that you could have a free society of equals if ownership wasn’t widely distributed. As bosses and landlords scoop up ever-larger tracts of the American landscape, promising that the rest of us will own nothing, but be happy, they threaten the continuation of the thing we call America. The problem has been steadily growing for decades, but at least now the symptoms—loneliness, anxiety, alienation, and bitter partisanship—are being recognized, even if we don’t all agree on their cause.

The least lonely among us belong to families, religious congregations, professions, artistic scenes, or political movements that set before us tasks that advance a deep and shared purpose. The future lies there—either in generative, hopeful, creative communities or in an ever more desperate and blinkered tribalism. American society has increasingly asked each of us to stand alone in the void, but humans are not built for that, and we can’t bear it for long. Loneliness is not soporific, like depression; it is depression’s frenetic cousin, goading us to seek some sense of belonging, however ill-conceived or dangerous. 

Hannah Arendt famously argued that loneliness is the sine qua non precondition of totalitarianism. This is what she meant. The lack of shared agency is a desperate condition for our kind of animal. The lonely will scramble for community, even if it requires believing or doing terrible things. No app or lifehack or doctor’s appointment is going to save us here. If the American experiment is going to survive the current century without turning into something awful, we will need the vision and courage to radically reimagine the purpose of our collective life and to allow for the wide distribution of meaningful tasks. We will need to make ourselves a nation of agents.

Ian Marcus Corbin is on faculty in neurology and bioethics at Harvard Medical School, and is a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita.

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Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
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