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The Lonely Century

April 1, 2021 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Loneliness is a big problem for individuals, organizations and societies, exacerbated but not created by the Covid-crisis. After Covid people should come together physically again; employers and governments should enable and encourage such meetings. That is the central message of the new book of Noreena Hertz, an international thought leader and academic.

I was surprised to read that “research shows that loneliness is worse for our health than not exercising, as harmful as being an alcoholic and twice as harmful as being obese.” This is regardless of what we earn, our gender, age or nationality. Hertz defines “loneliness as both an internal state and an existential one – personal, societal, economic and political. It goes beyond our yearning for connection. It also incorporates how disconnected we feel from politicians and politics, how cut off we feel from our work and our workplace, how excluded many of us feel from society’s gains, and how powerless, invisible and voiceless so many of us believe ourselves to be.”

Loneliness is fuelled by neoliberal capitalism. According to Hertz this is a “self-obsessed, self-seeking form of capitalism that has normalised indifference, made a virtue out of selfishness and diminished the importance of compassion and care.” ‘We’ and ‘us’ have been replaced by ‘I’ and ‘me’. “Neoliberalism has made us see ourselves as competitors, not collaborators, consumers not citizens, hoarders not sharers, takers not givers, hustlers not helpers.” It has “denied the pivotal role both public services and local community have historically played in helping people prosper”. It “redefined our relationships as transactions, recasting citizens in the role of consumers and engendering ever greater income and wealth divides”.

In the political domain “loneliness and right-wing populism are close bedfellows”. Populists manipulate feelings of loneliness and isolation that are a result of people perceiving being abandoned, losing social status, not being listened to by their governments. Lonely people often feel more hostile towards others, Hertz writes. “Lonely people will often put up a protective shell that denies the need for human warmth and company. The lonely mind, anxious and hyper-alert, operates in terms of self-preservation, scanning the surroundings for threats rather than trying to see things from the affected person’s point of view.”

Loneliness can be solved by connecting physically with other people. “We are hard-wired not to be alone.” People with stronger social ties live longer. Humans are social animals. “Physically coming together engenders something very precious that digital relationships and even talking on video services like Zoom can only ever be poor fascimiles of. For it is when we can see the whites of each other’s eyes and pick up on non-verbal cues such as body language or even scent that we are best able to experience empathy and practice reciprocity and cooperation.” I totally agree with her that having a dialogue on screen can be satisfying, but the physical equivalent goes deeper, is more nourishing and more fun.

Employers should encourage people to meet more often physically. Working from home is fine for 1,5 day a week, but not more. “Employers should resist the cost-cutting temptation to significantly ramp up and institutionalise remote working after the pandemic.”  Less loneliness leads to more engagement and a higher productivity. Hertz suggests to organize joint lunches, rather than eating ‘al desko’. Less than half of the people who eat lunch at their desks, actually wants to do so. Eating together not only amplifies social cohesion by having small-talk but workers also exchange effective tips and hacks during lunch.

Governments should enable people to meet by investing in a social infrastructure, Hertz argues. After the financial crisis of 2008 “government policies of austerity took a sledgehammer to libraries, public parks, playgrounds and youth and community centres”. These are the “places where we practise civility and democracy, learning how to peacefully co-exist with people different to us. (…) When we are together we learn to manage and reconcile our differences. (…) It is through spending time with people who are different to us and exercising our muscles of cooperation, compassion and consideration that we can come to feel more connected to each other and develop a sense of shared fate and belonging.”

Noreena Hertz. The Lonely Century. Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart. Sceptre, 2020