Associations Provide an Antidote to the Loneliness Epidemic

When social media started to go mainstream, many industry pundits predicted the demise of associations. With the web at their fingertips, people wouldn’t have to join associations to network and enjoy other traditional benefits of membership. 

Thankfully, a decade or so later, most associations are alive and well. In fact, associations can help cure many of the ills afflicting the 21st century professional. For example, the peer support, professional development, and volunteering opportunities offered by association membership can help diminish job stress and burnout.

Loneliness or social isolation is another problem in the headlines lately. And, once again, associations can provide relief.

What research tells us about loneliness

Unfortunately, loneliness is pervasive. In 2018, Cigna surveyed 20,000 American adults and found that nearly 50% of them always or sometimes feel alone or left out. Only 53% said they have meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis.

On the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a person is considered lonely if they score 43 or above. The average loneliness score of Cigna survey participants was 44. 

Young adults had the highest loneliness scores of all. The average scores by generation were:

•    Generation Z – 48.3
•    Millennials – 45.3
•    Generation X – 45.1
•    Baby Boomers – 42.4
•    Greatest Generation – 38.6

Why are so many people lonely?

Young adults are especially prone to loneliness because many of them move to new cities where they have to build a social network from scratch. Studies have also shown that Millennials are delaying marriage and kids. To compound these risk factors, after the age of 25, the number of friends someone has begins to decrease over time.

Professionals of all ages are working long hours. Plus, more people now work remotely as employees or freelancers. Remote workers say their biggest challenge is loneliness.

More people now live alone than at any other time in U.S. history, and they’re eating alone too. It’s a lonely cycle: wake up, work long hours, eat alone, collapse, wake up, work long hours…

Is social media to blame for loneliness?

The Cigna survey didn’t find a correlation between loneliness and social media use. Previous studies found that social media’s influence on a person’s sense of loneliness is determined by how they use social media. 

If you use social media to cement relationships and arrange get-togethers, it can have a positive effect. But, if you scroll through feeds while making social comparisons and noting the things you weren’t invited to, it can have a negative effect on loneliness.

associations loneliness

The demise of social membership clubs

We weren’t always so lonely. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French diplomat and historian, visited the U.S. in the 1830s. He described his impressions in his book, Democracy in America: “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations.”

People used to join social clubs, like the Elks, Rotary, or Freemasons. They belonged to bridge clubs and bowling leagues, as well as religious organizations. What happened?

Many factors contributed to an increasing social isolation:

•    Women had less time for clubs once they entered the workforce.

•    People joined professional groups, like associations, instead of social clubs.

•    With the rise of television, the internet, on-demand entertainment, food delivery, and e-commerce, people spent more leisure time alone at home.

•    Social media supplied us with a false sense of community.

The loneliness business

Entrepreneurs spotted a market need: communities for lonely professionals. Venture capitalists are supplying the funds needed to get these new businesses off the ground.

Expensive members-only social clubs, like The Wing, and co-working spaces, like WeWork, are sprouting up in cities across the country. Friend-making apps, like Hey Vina and Bumble BFF, are growing in popularity, as are adult dorms, like Tribe with locations in New York City and San Francisco. 

Unlike associations, these new businesses are profit-driven. “The product really is the people,” said the co-founder of Tribe

associations loneliness

How associations solve the loneliness problem

Associations have been in the people and community “business” for a long time. Unlike venture capital-funded companies like WeWork and Tribe, associations are mission-driven and member-led. 


The Cigna survey learned that the number one contributing factor to loneliness is when someone’s “interests and ideas are not shared by those around me.” Association members belong to a community of people with the same interests and work experiences. Their fellow members “get” them.

Associations are facilitators of human interaction and connection. You satisfy the very human need for belonging and offer an offline and online support system of peers and mentors. 

However, members can’t just buy community. Many of them won’t know how to best connect with others and start finding their place in your community. You need to help them find their way and maybe even learn how to develop professional relationships.
Membership niches help—groups in which someone can get to know a small group of fellow members. Offer special interest groups (SIGs) for different specialties and interests, or for membership segments, like women (in male-dominated professions or industries), young professionals, and C-suite executives. 

Conduct new member onboarding in groups. “Welcome, class of summer 2019.” Members can start their association experience by connecting with other new members in their “class.”

Offer special programs for members who work alone—remote employees, freelancers, and other solopreneurs—such as coffee breaks and happy hours. If space permits, provide co-working facilities at your association.


Volunteering is one of the most transformative membership benefits—and it helps cure loneliness. Participants in a survey of more than 10,000 people in the U.K. said that volunteering helped them feel less isolated. Besides giving members the chance to make new acquaintances and friends, volunteering also gives members the opportunity to make a difference. 

Professional development

People feel less lonely when they participate in activities that give them purpose. Your professional development programs can help reduce the harmful effects of social isolation by giving members more confidence and meaning.

Offer a range of educational programs—both in-person and virtual—at different price points so even budget-minded young professionals can participate. Make sure programs are designed with the busy professional in mind. They must be accessible via mobile devices and chunked into microlearning modules. 

Learning is accelerated—and more enjoyable—when social aspects are incorporated. Add online communities (discussion forums) to your courses. Make a space in these forums for personal (off-topic) conversations so learners can get to know each other.

Find ways for learners to meet and work together in person or online. If course design permits, have learners work together on team projects. Or, encourage them to use video conferencing tools for study groups or study breaks. 

Marketing associations as a cure to loneliness

Loneliness has a social stigma. No one wants to admit they’re feeling lonely or isolated. So, should you promote association membership or your professional development programs as a cure to loneliness? 

Whether or not you refer to loneliness in your marketing campaigns, you may want to discuss the issue with members. Research has shown that loneliness can affect an employee’s performance, work relationships, and loyalty, and has a negative influence on teamwork, communications, and office morale. It may be time for employers in your industry to spot conditions that could lead to loneliness and address the issue head-on. 

Instead of marketing your association as the cure to loneliness, you could talk about the impact membership can make on someone’s life, and tout the benefits that can help someone feel less lonely and isolated. 

For example, chapters are a strong membership selling point. Chapters help members connect with people with the same interests in their area. Members can work together as chapter volunteers, discuss issues, get advice, and build relationships.

If members in your association’s industry or profession work long hours, work remotely, or spend much of the day without the company of other adults, your marketing materials could present chapters, professional development, and membership in general as antidotes to the social isolation they experience at work.

Studies have found that materialism (spending money on “stuff”) can lead to loneliness, which then leads to more materialism—the “loneliness loop.” Associations give members the opportunity to enjoy meaningful experiences—learning, attending events, and volunteering—as opposed to just buying more “stuff.” 

Focus your marketing on the impact of these social membership experiences. Show how membership and professional development can improve someone’s life by reducing social isolation and loneliness, and helping them develop new relationships and a greater purpose. 

Social Learning
young professionals
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