Chart of the week: Lockdown loneliness and anxiety across the generations

Each week we present analysis of data in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. This week, with the country moving through varying states of a second lockdown phase, Sally Gainsbury looks at how the last period of national confinement affected individual wellbeing, finding that young people tended to fare worse.

Chart of the week

Published: 15/10/2020

As England introduces a three-tiered approach to Covid restrictions, concerns have grown over the lack of a unified or even consistent national experience – fuelling confusion, resentment and a sense of injustice in areas with the toughest restrictions.

But even during national lockdown there was no such thing as a unified ‘lockdown experience’. Key workers continued to work; women (particularly single parents) disproportionately absorbed the impact of school closures; and poorer people found it harder to shield vulnerable family members and keep their children happy and educated.

A further inequality highlighted by data published by the Office for National Statistics was in the emotional impact of lockdown on different age groups. Weekly telephone surveys of people aged 16 and over suggest some stark differences between generations in self-reported feelings of coronavirus-related stress, anxiety and poor mental health as well as feelings of loneliness.

Contrary to the common narrative around “lonely older people” the data shows that those in the 16–29 age group were far more likely than the 60-and-over group to report chronic loneliness – defined as feeling lonely “always or often” – with the proportion steadily increasing as lockdown wore on. The ONS has explored this further and found that between April 3 and May 10 (coinciding with the strictest period of lockdown) 16–24 year olds were around five times more likely to report chronic loneliness than those aged 75 and above.

While each of the three measures tend to track one another within each age group, it is interesting to note how upward and downward trends between age groups sometimes diverge – possibly as a result of lockdown-adjusting measures such as the return to work order in mid-May affecting each group differently.

Of course, it is possible that a younger person’s sense of loneliness or anxiety might differ from that of an older person. But their social and emotional needs, as well as their sense of normality, might differ too.  Understanding differences in how older and younger people experienced the first lockdown might help design Covid measures that people from different demographic groups find easier to comply with – and inform policy makers about interventions and services which may be needed to counter the longer-term effects on mental health.


Data notes

Data is drawn from the ONS’s Opinions and Lifestyle Survey. This is a long running monthly survey which was adapted to weekly in order to collect data on the impact of coronavirus on day-to-day life in England, Wales and Scotland. Surveys were undertaken either online or by telephone involving between 995 and 2000 people each week. Results were weighted by the ONS to be nationally representative.  

The data shown in our chart for deteriorating mental health and anxiety/stress are drawn from a question in the survey specifically designed to track the impact of coronavirus and asked: “In the past seven days, how has your well-being been affected?” The data presented shows the percentage of respondents in each age group who responded by selecting “making mental health worse" and “feeling stressed or anxious". 

The data shown on loneliness shows the percentage from each age group answering the question “how often do you feel lonely?” by selecting “always/often”. Other options were: “sometimes”, “hardly ever/never” and “don’t know/prefer not to say”. 

Note date ranges are not continuous or uniform and correspond to ONS survey collection waves which slightly overlap. Prior to the middle of May, surveys were undertaken every 10 days. This then changed to every 4 days. This means the period between May 14 and 17 is covered twice, although in the first instance, results for the period also include survey responses given between May 7 and 14. 

The original data includes 95% confidence intervals showing the range of uncertainty around the estimate which is shown in our chart. While these confidence intervals show some uncertainty around specific data points they track the same trends in peaks and troughs shown by the estimates between age groups.