Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2021

Adelaide Writers’ Week: The Lonely Century with Noreena Hertz and Natasha Cica

This is the session blurb from the AWW website:

Described by The Observer as one of the “world’s leading thinkers”, global economist Noreena Hertz dissects the contemporary epidemic of loneliness in The Lonely Century. This meticulously researched and highly readable book describes how we have become alienated from each other, and analyses the structures, influences and trends that cause and exacerbate our isolation. The Lonely Century is an urgent message about one of the most far-reaching issues of our time.

Streamed from London and Adelaide, this was a most enjoyable session.  Hertz commented (as other international guests have) about how lovely it is to see *people* sitting together outside in the sun.

Why is this the ‘lonely century’? Hertz began being interested in this for three reasons: increasing numbers of university students were approaching her to confide that they were lonely and isolated.  This was something new.  At the same time, her academic research made her interested in right wing populists in office (not just Trump, also e.g. Le Pen &c), and often the supporters of these populists that she spoke to, revealed that they were lonely.  She had also bought an Alexa, and she found herself feeling increasingly affectionate towards it. She was engaging in quasi conversations, greeting it, and being polite to it, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as part of her interactions with it.  She realised there was a whole market full of goods and services to alleviate loneliness that promised a meaningful connection.

Previously research interest had been focussed on the loneliness of the elderly.  Many people in nursing homes never get any visitors*.  Bizarrely, Japanese crime rates are rising for elderly people committing minor crimes in order to be sentenced to prison where they can have contact with other people.  But the data shows that young people are the loneliest, even before the pandemic.  One in five millennials say they don’t have a single friend.

When Hertz herself was visiting Manhattan, she did not have a friend at all.  So she tried out using Rent a Friend: there are 6000 available, from all over the world.  She was a bit dubious about meeting the one she chose (because of the risks) but it turned out to be really just friendship.  She and Brittany had coffee together, they did a bit of shopping.  It was not like an old friendship, but it was like the freshness of a new one, though she realised later that Brittany was laughing at her jokes because she was being paid for it.  C19th British novels are full of paid companions for women, so it’s not a new phenomenon, but when Hertz asked Brittany who mostly used her service, she said it was typically 30-40 year old professionals new to New York who didn’t have time to make friends.  They just wanted some company.

Research during Covid has found a significant rise in loneliness.  In the US, over half the adults feel lonely.  We’re in an acute phase of loneliness, an accelerated trend.  The rise of a contactless existence is part of that.  People are shopping online, ordering take-away online, doing yoga on YouTube… and they are trading off in-person experiences for virtual ones.  Is it just more convenient?  Avoiding the hassle of traffic and crowds etc?  Maybe.  But in the process we’re giving up f2f connection with other people.  Even a 30-second interaction with a barista in a coffee shop can make a huge difference to whether you feel lonely or not, because it makes us feel connected.  If Covid contactlessness persists beyond the pandemic, it will have significant consequences.  Because human beings need moments when we’re physically together, when we practise mindfulness about other people (e.g. not bumping into them in the supermarket, smiling at someone, greeting the checkout operator).  These small social contacts mean that we are also practising inclusive democracy.

Loneliness is part of the story of right-wing populism.  It was during conversations with supporters of right-wing populists across the globe that she started understanding the connection.  Loneliness is a lack of friends and a support network, and she found that Trump supporters, for example, are much more likely to identify being socially isolated and reliant only on themselves.  Some of them miss the brotherhood of the unions after jobs were lost.  (Work brings social opportunities, and many firms used to hold Works Picnics and Christmas parties for the family).  What Trump’s lonely supporters found was a sense of community when they joined in the chanting and wore the same branded gear at his rallies.  Le Pen’s supporters in France found it too when they worked with each other to deliver leaflets, and in Italy, La League would host dinners where people felt connected when they sang traditional songs.

These supporters of right-wing populists mostly feel unseen, disconnected, and unheard by anyone including politicians. They feel abandoned and forsaken. They are the newly lonely, who would have had that brotherhood of unions at work before those jobs were all lost, or would have felt connected at church when everyone went there as part of a community.  This right-wing  community with its nostalgia for a different world is exclusionary e.g. to immigrants, and their attitudes have been weaponised: Populist leaders can do this by exploiting lonely people who often see the world as a hostile place full of outsiders who don’t belong.

Cuddles for Sale is another service you can buy.  Hertz stressed that this service is not sexual, it’s about wanting intimate contact of a different type.  Hertz told the poignant story of a divorced man, very lonely, a software engineer working where it was hard to make friends.  He craved physical touch, and he paid $60 an hour to be cuddled, and this transformed his life.  He was no longer depressed and work became better.  But then he went on to say that he paid for other people to be cuddled because they needed it, and he was paying for it by living in his car.  This is obviously an extreme case, but Hertz tried it herself when she went to a group cuddling session to find out about other users of this service.  She was surprised to find that everyone seemed really normal—and yet they were so desperate for physical contact and intimacy they were prepared to pay to receive it in a safe consensual way.  So there is a real need out there, a problem exacerbated by Covid.

From the questions asked, I got the impression that the book includes a variety of these anecdotes, but the book is also about solutions. I was reminded of Reconnected, a Community Builder’s Handbook, by Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell which looked at the same problem, from a slightly different angle.

Cola-theques (sp?) in Japan are like discotheques, where elderly people dance (and there are matchmakers who introduce those who are shy).  These dances have moved outside during Covid, which is important when touch has been toxified. We are creatures of togetherness, and being with others is fundamental to being human.  (Cica also commented about how happy people were to be at the festival… they always are, but it’s especially so at the moment.)

The Neo-Liberal world we’ve been living in for so long has made connectedness seem optional, but it’s not. Economic ideas from Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s led to attitudes signalling that greed is good, and dog-eat-dog  behaviour is ok.  This era brought increasing individualism and society valorised hyper-competitiveness—at the expense of care, compassion and community. Pop songs even showed this shift as lyrics supplanted ‘We, Us, Ourselves’ with ‘I, Me Myself.’  The pandemic has seen a new appreciation and valorisation of health workers, and also the celebration of people doing things for each others.

Loneliness is bad for both mental health and physical health, and this is provable by measuring levels of cortisol and adrenalin in the body.  Loneliness is as bad for our health as obesity and smoking, and it reduces life expectancy.  It also increases the risk of dementia, stroke and heart attack.

Places that nurture and anchor us can be informal like cafés and libraries**.  In places round the world cafés and restaurants and yoga centres have not survived the economic shock of Covid yet these places are very important to our communities, and we need to do more to ensure they survive.  When we support our local stores and eateries, instead of trading off for convenience, it speaks to the importance of physical spaces where we can gather.  Governments also have a role to play in funding libraries, parks and other public places where we can come together.  But we also need to support these places ourselves.

Part of the book is a call to restore the kinds of government action that were routine not so long ago.  Hertz proposes a ‘New Deal’ somewhat like Roosevelt’s after the Depression.  Changes should include a living wage, health standards, government services, funding of community infrastructure, public art works, funding of the arts to bring people together and so on.  There could even a favourable tax status for businesses that take on a role in the community.  In Belgium there’s an empty store tax that incentivises lower rents so that stores don’t stay desolate and empty.

What is the role of social media in all this?  Hertz is blunt: Social media companies are the tobacco companies of our age and there is much that they should be doing and they should be regulated, especially to protect children.

She began her research into the role of social media as ‘agnostic’ but is now convinced that our use of social media has contributed to loneliness. Yes, it’s brilliant during the pandemic, and her ‘presence’ digitally at the festival is good, but not as good as being there in person.  The problem is that screens are displacing f2f communication.  Young people are often in a room together, but they’re on their phones.  And this can lead to some of them lacking interpersonal social skills.  Some universities have had to run a remedial workshop of ‘how to read a face’.  Nursery schools are finding that little kids lack basic social skills because their parents spend so much time on their phones and the children spend so much time on screens.  Of course there are cases where social media is really valuable, for example, an LGBTIQ child in a small community can connect digitally when there isn’t anyone local to interact with.  OTOH people feel lonely because they think everyone has more friends than they do, plus there’s an epidemic of cyber bullying among women.  Social media can be very exclusionary and what’s new now is that this exclusion is broadcast amongst all the peer group.  Often parents and teachers don’t see this because so much social life has migrated to the phone.  The research is clear: these devices are contributing to loneliness.

*This is, sadly, very true.  When my music teacher was still alive and in aged care, I visited her weekly.  When The Spouse and I were about to go overseas for six weeks, I approached people who were supposed to be her friends, but none of them were willing to visit in my absence.  Distraught, I went to the Sister-in Charge to ask if she could help me organise a visitor from an organisation such as Do-Care, which helps people isolated in their homes.  It was inconceivable to me that my dear old friend was to have no visitors for such a long time.  The Sister set me straight: she said that Valda did not realise how lucky she was.  Most of the people in that facility had no visitors, ever, not even on their birthdays or at Christmas.  My behaviour changed after that: I made a point of having a brief conversation with all the old people I encountered as I made my way to where Valda sat in her favourite spot.  (And I made sure that I sent a postcard to her in every city that we visited so that she knew she was not forgotten.)

**Contrary to what was said about libraries in Australia in this session, libraries in my city are thriving, and one of them famously has enhanced its community credentials by ringing every single one of its borrowers during the pandemic to see if they are OK. I belong to four libraries.  My local is in walking distance. All its other six branches, like the other libraries I belong to, are within half an hour’s drive and I visit them all for books, research and bookish events.  All these libraries were active throughout the pandemic, offering author and artist talks by Zoom but also lots of other activities ranging from art and craft workshops to cooking with kids and more.   They offered Digital Story Time for little kids and bigger ones, You Tube book reviews, and chatty newsletters sharing information about all sorts of things.  In normal times these libraries are not just for book nerds like me.  They offer computer access;  story times for children of all ages; book clubs and book chat meetings; community gatherings; community noticeboards; home delivery of books to the housebound; and talks and demonstrations about everything from gardening to cooking with bush foods.  They are places where students gather to study, and some folks come to read newspapers and magazines.  So I would  say to anyone who’s lonely, that a visit to your local library is a good starting point.  Even if the topic is not to your taste, you can chat to other people and make yourself known to the librarian.

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for the plug about the library service and how privileged we are to have such a fantastic resource. Everything you say is so true about the loneliness epidemic and I worry if it can be fixed in the immediate future.

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    • I remember the days when Jeff Kennett wanted to get rid of our local libraries, substituting digital access to the catalogue and delivery of the books. Fortunately Melburnians rose up en masse and wouldn’t have a bar of it (which has always made me wonder why they didn’t do that about the schools and hospitals that were closed, but that’s a gripe for another day).
      Libraries are an essential piece of community infrastructure!

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  2. You are reviewing some rather fabulous sounding non-fiction lately Lisa! We would love our local library to have an outdoor reading area where people can sit and read/chat in the sunshine/shade outside on pleasant days. Here in Australia I think we should be enjoying more of the lovely weather we often have!

    I was having an interesting conversation online elsewhere about how lonely many of our suburbs now are in Australian towns and cities – with both partners often working and children in day care/school, elderly folk find it isolating as their neighbours are so often out, and the decline of larger gardens means fewer people are chatting over the side fence on weekends. Elizabeth Farrelly also has an interesting article in today’s SMH about aged care designs overseas combating isolation and loneliness among the residents, it’s worth a read.

    Another friend made a point that her sister, being over 65, finds herself having to mix with older people when she would prefer to mix more with young people and children. Evidently where she lives access to this kind of company is difficult for her. My friend says her sister has nothing in common with the other folk over 65 in her area. It is actually quite difficult to find ways of mixing with the younger population. It’s all worth thinking about!

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    • I think you’re right that the design of housing has a lot to do with community building. Some estates in the outer suburbs are a disaster, with long wide curving streets, and no parks or local shops to encourage walking. Where my parents lived on the Gold Coast was a classic example: they had a beautiful view over Burleigh Lake, but there was nowhere much to walk to. I couldn’t even walk all the way around the lake.
      Where I live in Melbourne we are still beneficiaries of the original development policies that required a small playground within walking distance of all the houses. So every second or third street, a house block was a park & playground. There are three schools within walking distance too, and at home time the streets are full of families walking home. This kind of infrastructure should not be the exception, it should be the rule.
      OTOH there’s a nice park right next to the library, and Story Time is an ideal opportunity for young mums and grandmas doing the child care to get together. But what do I see there? The children are playing, but their mothers are all glued to their phones. Well, maybe that’s the only time they can have five minutes peace to make a phone call, and alas it’s true that a simple phone call to any business these days involves hanging on while they ‘value our calls’ for long periods of time, but still, the opportunity to meet other people seem lost.

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      • I lived for a little while in Seddon in Melbourne Lisa, and what a terrific community. Semi-detached houses within easy walking distance to trains, buses, village shopping centre and cafes, parks, dog walking areas. I had a group of friends within a fortnight just from walking the dog – you got chatting to people sitting on their small front porches or out walking too – all the dog walkers in fact met up at an outdoor cafe regularly – and the village shopping centre meant you came across people you knew regularly. Why or why can’t we design our suburbs like this now? Easy access to play areas for people with kids, and houses had a courtyard garden where you could grow vegetables/relax/play.

        Hostel for homeless men was in the middle of all this, they men caused no trouble and they became known in the community instead of being isolated and stigmatized.

        Younger people attached to their mobiles means other people can’t get talking with them. It’s a shame.

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        • The temptation is to say… and young people wonder why they are lonely. Peer pressure gets blamed for a lot of things and is often IMO used as an excuse by both parents and children, but there is pressure on everyone to be sociable, and it’s almost impossible not to use some kind of digital device or social media to achieve it. The problem is that it can be both and enabler and a disabler for making friends.

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  3. Great commentary Lisa as always you introduce important topics. Just yesterday had a fabulous four hours of socialising face to face and what a joy to be with others sharing. The demographics were older with a few forty year somethings in the mix and best of all no phones to be seen.

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    • We will never take such pleasure for granted again, I know I won’t!

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  4. Libraries are the most important public buildings in my life.

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    • Amen to that! I’ve just picked up this actual book from mine today!

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  5. […] also reading The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz (see my report of the author in conversation at the Adelaide Writers Week) in which she unpacks the misunderstandings that arise in the digital world because we cannot […]

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  6. […] the economist Noreena Hertz, discussing her book The Lonely Century and I reported on the session here.  It was such an interesting session that I reserved the book at the library and have just […]

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