Ghosting’s not just a cowardly dating trend – it’s haunting us everywhere

Marisa Bate investigates why ghosting is happening in all parts of our lives

Ghosting became a cultural buzzword in 2018. Used to describe someone leaving a relationship without informing the other person, simply ‘disappearing’, it spoke to the fleeting and temporary experience of modern, digital life. Today, we scroll past faces and places in seconds, engaging for a moment, and then moving, pinballing our way across the net, eyes darting towards something newer and shinier. Countless think pieces have been written, MTV launched Ghosted: Love Gone Missing, a show about tracking down the person who ghosted you, and best-selling author Dolly Alderton announced her debut novel, set to be published next year, will be called Ghosts.Yet increasingly, I’ve come to believe the phrase speaks to a much broader experience than just dating. We’re seeing the same scenario in other settings. We’ve committed to something – a job, a friendship, some sort of social or cultural contract or exchange, and, suddenly, as if in a puff of smoke, the other end of the deal is missing. What we believed would be there, isn’t, without explanation and untrackable. 

Are you being career ghosted?

The feeling has been brewing. When the 2008 financial crash pulled the rug from under thousands of people’s lives, and the housing market collapsed, so did the promise that if we, (fellow 30- and 20somethings) worked hard and applied ourselves, we would earn money, save for a deposit and buy a house. We managed internships and worked long hours but when we arrived at the same age our parents had been when they’d got mortgages, we just had debt. The social goalposts hadn’t just moved, they vanished. We are, according to the think tank The Resolution Foundation ‘the lost generation’.

 And in the wake of 2008, a workforce has grown that is unpredictable and unreliable. According to a report from the TUC in July of this year, the British gig economy has more than doubled in size over the last three years with one-in-10 working age adults in a job that comes without security and guarantee. As the president of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, said, ‘The world of work is changing fast and working people don’t have the protection they need.’ These are, of course, the Uber drivers, the Deliveroo cyclists, the cleaners whose contracts are irregular and changing and make childcare arrangements impossible. And, as the country wrestles with a Brexit deal, rights of workers secured by the Europe Union could potentially disappear, too.

 There’s another working culture that can feel on the brink of vanishing – self-employment. And it is ever more prevalent due to the growing numbers of freelancers, now 15% of the population. Annie, 34, a freelance graphic designer told me, ‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been ghosted by a potential job. They get in touch, they commission the work, and then when you deliver, you never hear from them again. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re totally helpless’. Frances, 29, a journalist, agrees. ‘I wrote a piece for a national newspaper. To this day, despite my emails, I’ve never heard back. It’s very demoralising.’ 

 Are you being friendship ghosted?

Our emotional lives are taking a knock, too. A recent study from MIT analysed friendship ties in 84 subjects aged 23 to 38, who were taking part in a business management class. They found that while 94% of subjects believed that the people they liked liked them back, the truth was that is only around 50% of the friendships were reciprocated. The results, as the New York Times pointed out, matches previous data, and suggests even our friendships are not actually what we thought. Are those people substantial pals or hollow figures, simply in the shape of friends? And has this confusion been confounded by the presence of online ‘friends’? Emma Gannon, author and podcast host, puts the burden of this directly on Facebook: ‘I genuinely blame the rise of friendship ghosting on Facebook implementing that bloody ‘Maybe’ button on Facebook events. I will always be angry at how that button made it suddenly socially acceptable to not commit to a friend, in case something better came along or you suddenly didn’t feel like it’.

Unquestionably, social media plays a role. We have our Instagram persona, our LinkedIn persona, our Twitter persona and they all might be different from our ‘real’ selves, as if there’s these ghostly versions of us soullessly wandering the eternal corridors on the internet. Furthermore, social media is another social contract that doesn’t always keep its promise. As we follow influencers, they promise flatter stomachs, happiness, or mindfulness, they offer solutions and escape, but often they result in the opposite: feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. For me, personally, Instagram has always felt like the ghost of Christmas future in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol– it shows me all the things I could be but I’m not and it is haunting, punishing reminder of why I’m not on a beach in Malibu, tanned skin, cocktail in hand.

Where to find the ghostbusters

Interestingly, Gannon considers the role of urban life in our ghostly new world. ‘A part of me wonders if this ghosting culture is more prevalent in urban environments, like London, where we really have lost a sense of community. The majority of people in cities don’t drive, they rent, don’t live near friends, are away from family and rarely see the same face each morning when commuting to work. I feel like in more residential areas of the UK people do have more of a priority on friends and community.’ It is a fascinating point; would we feel more grounded if our lives were based in the real world, not the virtual one? Clearly, issues like housing and work feel, and are, very ‘real’ but would we be more equipped to face the challenges if we felt our lives were more secure, cemented in cups of tea, face to face, not another Whatsapp message? Furthermore, in the age of ghosting, loneliness is a well-documented health epidemic. The language of our time, ‘ghosting’, ‘loneliness’, ‘lost’ suggests a staggering sense of disconnection and isolation.

 When ghosting arrived, it was seen as humiliating and cruel. The behaviour of someone mean spirited and selfish, but perhaps it is merely a symptom of the strange times we live in, all of this against a backdrop of Brexit and climate disaster. Everything that we once knew, it seems, is disappearing. It doesn’t excuse it but maybe offers some explanation. In the meantime, all we can do is hang on tight to what is real – or at least, whatever that feels and looks like to us right now.

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