Our consumerist society is poor in affection and relationships. Everything has a price, feelings are tradable, goods that can be given in exchange for money. It is not merely rhetoric, it is a tragic reality. And if it is true – as an Italian proverb goes – that “he who finds a friend, finds a treasure,” it is also true that, unfortunately, a friend may have a price at present, and it can be a high one. A paid friend. This is the new trend among last-generation affluent “single” men and women, that is, among lonely people, with no friends or people they steadily hang out with. These people address agencies that “rent” them friendships. This market is based mainly on the Internet and its turnover is exponentially growing. Both in the West and in the East, without distinction, in the globalization of contemporary loneliness.
In London, the City of big business deals, the most densely inhabited city of the European continent – not of the European Union anymore, after their choosing BrExit – the site rentafriend.com has gone viral. It offers the possibility to “rent” the company of a person to spend some time with, like friends or at least good acquaintances: go for a stroll, to the cinema, to the theater, to see a show, have a drink or eat something together, or simply to chat a bit, exchange opinions and tell episodes of their intimate life… deluding themselves into thinking that they have an converser, a person who listens to their stories, and that there is someone interested in their existence.
The site gives you access to a database of potential “friends for rent”, at an average cost of 50 pounds per hour. This commercial service – the Times explains in its presentation of the successful English website – had been created in the United States and soon after it became popular worldwide, with over 500 thousand users around the world. Besides London, the cities where this service is spreading the fastest are New York and Chicago. It is not by chance. It is symptomatic that cities with high population and trade density are also home to the highest rate of existential solitude. In large metropolises and business centers dominated by the idea that freedom equates purchasing power, where life is frenetic, the loneliness of people who are physical close, yet light-years away from each other, reaches levels that are still beyond the comprehension of small suburban communities.
Elderly people are the main “customers”, but not the only ones. Also young students who are far away from home and entrepreneurs. Long story short, the target of the site is varied and wide-ranging, and it guarantees high profits.
This new “commercial socialization” mode has won over also Japan over the last few years, making itself room among the habits of Japanese people thanks to the numerous agencies specializing in this safe and flourishing business sector. Its turnover has doubled in eight years. At a cost of 1000 yen (about 10 dollars) per hour, you “buy” the polite company of a man or a woman, most of whom are middle-aged.
There, in the “Land of the Sun”, this “service” was first open by the so-called “ossan“, men aged between 45 and 55 years. Takanobu Nishimoto, friendship entrepreneur, says he started this activity four years ago to “improve the image of middle-aged men, who are no longer in their prime and are not taken seriously in society and who are just looking for someone to spend a few hours with, not to be judged, but to be listened to.”
It is the era of IT revolution, where technology has taken over our lives, filling them with nothingness. We are easily satisfied with Likes under our Facebook posts, call simple clicks on your computer contacts and we define as socializing tools nothing but telematics rooms for secret games, where people get alienated from the real problems of every day. In this cultural and collective depersonalizing context we have lost true relationships, starting from the original, the crucial one, the relationship with ourselves, with our identity, with our profound truth, with the meaning and purpose of our lives. Virtual things do not just become real, but there is no time or room for realities other than virtual, false, and misleading.
This “virtual” mode of relationship is gaining ground also among teenagers. The US founder of “rent a friend”, Scott Rosenbaum, is 30 years old. In the US, prices are lower than average, hence also younger and less wealthy customers can afford it. You pay an entrance fee to the Agency, a kind of subscription fee, and about $10, the equivalent of a Babysitter or a Dogsitter. You sign up to the site, fill out a card with your “sensitive” data such as sex, age, tastes and character, you type a code and book a “friend”, choosing him or her from a catalog. Discounts are available for “time packages”, with regular attendance (2 or 3 times a week). Everything seems to be extremely easy, except it is very, very sad. In our market-based society, even human relationships become a good to be offered for a price, and the higher is their price, the more false and humiliating they are.
A Portuguese journalist has imported this para-social business activity also to Italy, for the Roman and Milanese markets. It is a slap in the face of humanity and a slap in the face of the Church. A slap that should shake the ecclesiastic authorities and make them provide a more efficient urban pastoral care. In this context, Pope Francis’ missionary invitation becomes even more valuable: go out in the streets of the world, visit people’s homes and meet the children of God, bringing them the words and comfort of the perfect friend, those of a true friend, always faithful and patient, Jesus.