Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2021

The Lonely Century, by Noreena Hertz

Readers may remember that the recent Adelaide Writers Week program featured a session with 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 finished reading it.

Having ‘attended’ the session, I was familiar with the theme of the book and the propositions that it makes, and I won’t revisit that now since you can read my report, but the book was worth reading in its entirety for the additional detail.  It confirms that the book is not a piece of ‘pop’ psychology— it’s meticulously researched and cogently argued, and it also revealed to me that some of the more alarming manifestations of loneliness are not, as I had thought,  projections into the future, but are happening now.  In addition to the worrying connections between political extremism, conspiracy theories and loneliness, there’s discussion of research that shows that people are more aggressive and hostile when they are lonely because they put up a protective shell that denies the need for human warmth and company.  What is most troubling about this, is that the same research shows that visual cortex of these people is stimulated by the suffering of others.  They react to suffering more quickly, but with attention, not with compassion.  So next time the media reports on some unconscionable crime committed against a helpless victim, and you wonder as I have how could they do such a thing? consider that the offender’s brain doesn’t work the way that mine and yours does.

Not every lonely person, of course, is an affront to our sense of common decency.  The Lonely Century offers more detail about the economic costs of loneliness (billions) because of its demonstrable impact on health and wellbeing. What the book suggests is that our response to this should be to make renewed efforts to connect with the people around us.

The lonely mind acts in self-preservation, on the alert for threats rather than trying to see things from others’ point-of-view.  It also affects how we categorise the world: lonely people see the neighbourhood as unfriendly whereas the non-lonely in the same neighbourhood don’t.  When lonely people see their environment as threatening and non-caring, they have diminished empathy. That’s bad for democracy because democracy requires that different views be reconciled as it tries to meet the needs of all citizens.  Democracy needs people to be connected to the state and to each other.

When these bonds of connectivity break down; when people feel they can’t trust or rely upon each other and are disconnected, whether emotionally, economically, socially or culturally; when people don’t believe the state is looking out for them and feel marginalised or abandoned, not only does society fracture and polarise, but people lose faith in politics itself. (p.35)

Hertz has more to say about how neo-liberalism and the mantras of ‘every man for himself’ have contributed to the loneliness problem that we have.  But it derives from a perfect storm of causes, not just economic but also cultural, societal, and technological.  There’s a chapter about ‘solutions’ which use technology but mostly, they made me feel ill.  I remember when there were proposals to use robots to deliver meals in Australian aged care homes and there was outrage because people understood that for residents too frail to join others in the dining room, that person-to-person contact with a human being was crucial to mitigate the loneliness of their days.  So how do we feel about a Japanese trial of a robot friend (in concept, not unlike the one in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun) to help solve the loneliness problem of its elderly people?  (Japan has the world’s oldest population).  The PaPeRo (partner-type personal robot) uses facial recognition technology to interact with humans, and offers greetings and reminders and makes expressive gestures.  (You can see a video of how it works here). When I think of the world’s refugee problem, I can’t help but think that Japan would do better to open its ultra-restrictive immigration policy and bring young people in to solve their problem instead of wasting money and expertise on a solution as cruel and heartless as this.

And if you think this is bizarre, the top-of-the-range sex robots apparently lead the way…

(*chuckle* No, I did not do a Google search to find one!)

The chapter titled ‘The Solitary City’ acknowledged that the sense of desertion and utter loneliness of a city like London was recognised back in the 19th century by Thomas De Quincy.  But what’s different now (confirmed by shocking statistics about pervasive loneliness in the 21st century city) is the image of a rude, self-absorbed urbanite.  It’s not a stereotype.  People feel they can get away with things because anonymity breeds hostility and carelessness and the modern city is an anonymous place.  The urban privacy that people value comes at a cost, as people found during Lockdown.  People in apartments were much worse off than people in the suburbs where community thrives, and the book includes examples of architecture and design features that are hostile to people getting together.

People move faster in cities, with less time to connect even over the purchase of a coffee, and they change addresses more often, this rootlessness contributing to the problem.  Living alone is often a lifestyle choice based on a desire for independence and economic self-sufficiency, but the risk of loneliness is high.  Eating single-portion meals can feel very lonely indeed. (There’s a TV program in Japan that screens other people eating, creating the illusion that viewers are not eating their own meals alone.  I kid you not).

But there’s more to this than just how individuals feel.  Being with others, accepting differences, resolving issues, and co-existing is part of honing pro-social democratic instincts. 

For whether it is discussing, deliberating, or indeed learning how to respectfully disagree with your housemates or neighbours or partner, all these are important skills we need to practise if we are to learn one of the key tenets of inclusive democracy: that sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good. (p.69)

The chapter about modern work practices was illuminating.  I knew already, for example, that work at places like Amazon is soul-destroying and stressful, but I had not realised that the constant monitoring of productivity meant that people could not even have a chat on a toilet break.  If that chat doesn’t happen at work—how’s your family, did your footy team win, what did you do on the weekend— for some people, it doesn’t happen at all.  The constant rating of performance which is so annoying for consumers is dreadful for workers: the age of surveillance capitalism is different to previous forms of employee monitoring because of its extent, the levels of intrusiveness and because decision-making has been ceded to machines.  (There are even systems which monitor workers in their own homes, maintaining surveillance on the number of key-strokes and the use of apps.)  The digitisation of the workplace means that emails are transactional not conversational, and for many, the longer commute, #MeToo, and the end of communal lunch spaces and opportunities for informal socialising means that there are few opportunities for meaningful cooperation and collaboration.  Add in longer working hours, and families are the losers.

There’s a whole loneliness economy which exists to bring people together. Commercial communities include music, writers and craft festivals; cross-fit groups and even author talks and late night shopping. But because these things cost money, and can sometimes be very expensive, there’s a risk of exclusivity.  Hertz says you can’t buy community, you have to make it, and you have to have leadership that encourages people to want to do things together.

There’s more about the omnipresence and omnipotence of the Smartphone and its destructive effects of screens on our relationships.  But we have to realise that relying on individuals to make sensible decisions about something that’s doing them harm is not enough.  Governments, business and individuals, Hertz says, need to wake up to the costs of loneliness.  It’s costing billions and posing a potent threat to tolerant and inclusive democracy. 

Author: Noreena Hertz
Title: the Lonely Century, Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart
Publisher: Sceptre, (Hodder and Stoughton), 2020
ISBN: 9781529329261, pbk., 394 pages
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Thank you, Lisa. I have just reserved a copy.


  2. As society, and capitalism in particular, reverts to C19th forms I suppose it is no surprise that Bezos would reprise the thoroughly discredited ‘scientific management’ theories of Frederick Taylor. As countless studies showed, breaking down tasks and isolating workers reduces productivity (but allows the owner to feel he’s in control).


    • It’s not just Bezos. What is interesting is that ordinary consumers are complicit in this behaviour. Every time a consumer uses the gig economy or buys too-cheap consumer goods made in the sweat shops of the world, they are complicit in all sorts of worker abuse. (And I say ‘they’ because I never knowingly done either.)


  3. This is the kind of book that sets the brain buzzing when you think about all the implications. We’re seeing the way lockdowns are making people feel more lonely and isolated leading to long term mental health issues but what this book is indicating is that we can expect it to have longer term effects on crime and political engagement.


    • Yes. It was finished contemporaneously with the pandemic, so she connects what was happening with lockdowns with what was already happening anyway.
      However, although the media focus on mental health issues has been relentless, I do think we should be wary of assuming that lockdown makes everyone feel more lonely and isolated. Extraverts do; that may not be the case for introverts. People who live in poky apartments and don’t know their neighbours do; people living in the suburbs and chatting to neighbours on the other side of the street when they’re out for exercise may feel more connected than usual. (Our media never ventures into the suburbs.) People who were already lonely may feel worse, but people with a network of friends and/or family who keep in touch digitally may feel a strong sense of being cared about.
      Here in Victoria where the lockdown was longer and harder than anywhere else in Australia, calls to help lines went up and the media told us about mental health problems endlessly, but the suicide rate went down, possibly because the state government poured extra money into mental health services.
      Beneath media scrutiny some people have a renewed sense of what is important in their lives. In casual exchanges in the bakery, the butcher and elsewhere, I heard strangers expressing gratitude that they had not been touched by Covid: ‘it’s good to be alive, and well, and to know that our families are too’.


  4. […] of damage and endurance, and a journey towards acceptance and healing.  Reading this just after Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century is like balm to the soul.  There’s not a whiff of Pollyanna in A Million […]


  5. […] Charlatans could be a (much, much shorter) companion volume for The Lonely Century, by Noreena Hertz because it explores the same phenomenon of people voting against their own best interests.  If you […]


  6. […] of damage and endurance, and a journey towards acceptance and healing.  Reading this just after Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century is like balm to the soul.  There’s not a whiff of Pollyanna in A Million […]


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