Liverpool's Loneliness Epidemic

We're constantly referred to as one of the friendliest places in the world, but more of us than ever are feeling isolated and left behind. What's the fix?

by David Lloyd

Steve wants to be your friend. He’s ‘wacky’, he ‘knows how to get the party started’ and he absolutely loves ‘intellectual conversation’

You can be Steve’s friend. The cost? To you - £25 a month, and a fifty quid top up every time you go bowling with him. Plus, of course, all his drinks. Because that’s what friends are for. 

Perhaps one of the strangest pandemic beneficiaries (apart from Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s career and banana bread) is the rise of online friend rental sites. Stranger still, Liverpool is one of the most lucrative cities in the UK if you want to be a friend that charges, like a parking meter, by the hour.  

Well, we do like to think of ourselves as the friendliest of cities. 

The premise of services like these is simple: you pay for a monthly membership which gives you access to the site’s registered ‘friends’ for hire. Scroll down the list and pick your partner for the evening. Isn’t that how everyone makes friends? On RentAFriend, type in ‘Liverpool’ and that list runs to 43 pages.

Friends-in-waiting set their own criteria, give a little bio and suggest how much companionship time is worth. 

Loneliness epidemic, allow me to introduce the internet. We just knew you’d get on. 

Self isolation and social distancing aren’t just the grim hangover of a long Covid world, they’re a way of life for many of us. As the city gets back to business, and our ebullient hospitality sector bounces back to life, our real and profound need for human contact is deeper than it’s ever been. Yet, for an increasing number of us, it remains as elusive as ever. Studies by Cambridge University revealed that 40% of participants feel lonelier now than before the Covid epidemic.

So what’s the answer? 

Scott Rosenbaum thinks he’s found it. His RentAFriend site has over half a million regular users, with the UK his most lucrative market outside North America. When we chat, he unashamedly talks about “tapping into the friend market” and of helping his community of wannabe friends “earn a little extra cash”

“There were thousands of dating websites, but no websites where you could hire a local platonic friend," Rosenbaum tells me. “After doing some market research, I created a website to help fill that void”.

The void is real. Further studies, by the Office of National Statistics, confirm that feelings of loneliness have roughly doubled in adults over the past two years. Further studies by Cambridge University Press have shown that mental health has declined during the same time, and that worsening mental health problems are inextricably linked to intensified feelings of loneliness.

“People can hire friends to help them learn how to socialise again,” Rosenbaum says. “Or to help introduce them to new people. There are many people who may not be lonely, but more on the shy side and hiring a friend can help them to learn how to break the ice, and get them out of the house and out interacting in person”.

Of course, if you know what you’re looking for online - you can find it. And if you’ve something to sell, you can sell it too. But the commodification of human company? Have we reached that point? Maybe, for thousands of RentAFriend users in Liverpool, the answer is yes. 

It’s easy to mock sites like Rosenbaum’s, but the fact remains that for so many of us making connections is hard. Maybe we’re newly arrived here. Maybe new levels of social anxiety paralyzes us. Maybe we walk past Leaf on Bold Street and wish we had the nerve to saunter in, and get involved, but just can’t. I know that feeling. 

Maybe, then, it’s worth paying someone £50 to get a taste of a social life that everyone else seems to be enjoying. 

Maybe. 

It’s easy to walk through town and think we’re living in a city that’s awash with confident, living-their-best-life-types, but that picture is, by its very nature, skewed. According to ONS data, younger people are the group most likely to report feeling lonely: with 10% of 16-24 year olds feeling lonely ‘often or always’.  And, at the other end of the demographic tick boxes, over half of those 75 or over in the city are living alone: with many reporting seeing no one at all for six days a week.

Despite its shortfalls, social media has made it easier for us to talk about mental health, sexuality, gender and trauma. Loneliness, though? There are plenty of studies showing a correlation between increased social media use and loneliness and depression in younger people. But how many of us are talking about that?

Tech, for all its promise of making the world smaller than ever, can’t change the stuff outside our screens. Our cities are still big, scary and intimidating places for many of us. 

It’s a situation familiar to Liverpool Cares - part of the nationwide Cares Family, which runs programmes to help older and younger neighbours reduce loneliness together.

“Our city is amazing, but it’s also growing and changing at double speed, and that can leave some people feeling anonymous, isolated and left behind,” says Care’s spokesperson Johanna Brooks. “Our aim is simple. To bring older and younger scousers together across divides,” Brooks says. “We believe in mutuality: that younger and older neighbours both get so much out of getting to know and supporting one another”.

Through social clubs, a one-to-one friendship matching programme Love Your Neighbour, local outreach and community fundraising, older and younger people come together. No cash changes hands.

“It’s about helping neighbours to feel part of our changing city rather than left behind by it,” Johanna says.

During the darkest days of the pandemic, Liverpool Cares saw people rally around their communities and find new ways to connect and grow closer to each other, working with Bold Street’s Little Shoe Cafe and the brilliant people at GoodGym Liverpool.

“Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve helped older and younger neighbours to find solace and laughter, and develop real, meaningful friendships,” Brooks says. “It’s about igniting the warmth of social connection in a disconnecting time.”

That’s a phrase that strikes me. The warmth of social connection in a disconnecting time. It reminds me of my favourite coffee house, The Sea Shanty in New Brighton. 

For three years, The Sea Shanty’s been doing everything right. But, as owner Adam Rowan (who runs it with his partner Siân Evans) says, there was no grand plan. No Gantt chart or business model behind the cafe’s disarmingly feel-good atmosphere. 

“It’s just the way I’ve been brought up,” Rowan says. “Chat to people. Say hello. Be nice.”

“When I opened the cafe I wanted it to be a place where people felt at home. I know what it’s like to feel awkward and nervous - I get like that myself sometimes. Especially in those places where you feel you’re not hip enough to be served. I still get nervous when I serve someone who looks cool,” he laughs.

The Sea Shanty’s magic is hard to pin down - but there’s something about its cross-generational stew of customers, its homespun aesthetic and the genuine warmth of its welcome that self selects the kind of people you’d be happy to small talk a flat white away with. 

Communal benches help: “You wouldn’t think of pulling up a chair and sharing a table with a stranger,” Rowan says, “so we have a few benches. It’s amazing how they spark conversations. You see people chatting, and leaving as friends.” 

“We knew early on that there was an organic community starting to grow,” Rowan says, recalling how his love of music was central to The Sea Shanty’s evolution. 

“Gigs are quite intense and not particularly sociable events,” Rowan says. “So we thought about how best to make music a communal experience. We settled on sessions, where people could sing along, bring an instrument, or just sit and enjoy. That way, there’s no barriers, and it becomes just like a big gathering of family and friends.”

Now the jams are so popular they spill out into the street in one direction, and into the garden in the other. 

Rowan’s set up popular chess clubs and art workshops too. He was set on finding more ways to fill the cafe’s days until a friend intervened: “I was chasing my tail, and my mental health was suffering, then my mate pointed out how the place had a life of its own now. He made me take a step back and I realised that a real community is a living thing, and I didn’t have to keep creating all these events. Just let it develop naturally, and enjoy it.” 

Rowan’s deft touches - a shared bench, a sing-a-long, the time to chat a little with everyone - don’t seem all that ground-breaking in isolation. But you’ve only got to scratch beneath the surface a little to realise: these are things we took for granted, and missed so much when they were snatched away from us. The stuff we were so hungry for. Not so many of us were desperate to use our loyalty cards, chomping at the bit for ever-more-esoteric street food or dying to get back to a bar with its own manifesto and industrial chic lighting. Just the warmth of social connection. 

Now, for many of us, that convivial hum has returned it’s hard not to look at some of our bustling food halls, riotous music nights and hip coffee spots and wonder: are these also places where loneliness blooms unnoticed? Maybe.

Maybe we’ve engineered the lonely out of our city centres. Maybe that’s the vacuum into which friend rental sites find their lucrative business model. I’m not sure that’s a city I’d particularly want to be friends with though, what about you?