Even before a global pandemic introduced us to terms like “social distancing”, loneliness was well on its way to becoming the defining condition of the twenty-first century.
In her new book THE LONELY CENTURY: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart, renowned thinker and economist Noreena Hertz investigates how radical changes to the workplace, mass migration to cities, technology’s ever greater dominance of our lives, and decades of neoliberal policies that placed self-interest above the collective good have coalesced to create a society in which loneliness, atomisation and isolation prevail – which COVID has only amplified. Hertz provides an empowering and inspiring vision for how to mitigate this, reconnect with each other and come together again. Hertz combines a decade of research with first-hand reporting that takes her from ‘renting a friend’ in New York to family-friendly Belgian far-right festivals, from elderly women knitting bonnets for their robot caregivers in Japan to Ivy League colleges running ‘How to Read a Face in Real Life’ remedial classes. What she uncovers is a global population feeling more and more alienated and isolated.
Noreena Hertz is a renowned thought leader, academic, and broadcaster, named by The Observer as “one of the world’s leading thinkers” and by Vogue as “one of the world’s most inspiring women.” Her previous bestsellers—The Silent Takeover, The Debt Threat, and Eyes Wide Open—have been published in more than twenty countries, and her opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Financial Times. She has hosted her own show on SiriusXM and spoken at TED, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and Google Zeitgeist.
In this exclusive interview, I speak to Noreena Hertz about the causes of our loneliness epidemic, the consequences for each and every one of us, and what we can do to restore human connection in a world that’s pulling us apart.
Q: What is loneliness?
[Noreena Hertz]: When we typically think about loneliness, we think about it as being a feeling of craving companionship, craving intimacy, or feeling disconnected from friends and family. It can also be a feeling of being unseen or unheard from those who are closest to us. Loneliness is all of those things for sure- but it’s also a feeling of being disconnected from our government, our fellow citizens and our employer. That feeling of being invisible, unseen and unheard occurs not just from those we are closest to but also from our workplace and state. Loneliness very much defines what this century has become.
Q: Why are we in a crisis of loneliness?
[Noreena Hertz]: It’s important to stress just how substantial today’s loneliness crisis is. Right now, during the pandemic, 50% of people say they feel lonely. Even before that, 1 in 5 millennials said they didn’t have a single friend. 1 in 5 of all Americans said they felt lonely always or often. 40% of employees and office workers felt lonely in the workplace. Even before the pandemic this was a lonely world and there are many drivers for why we got to this place. We do less with others than we did in the past- we’re les s likely to go to church, we’re less likely to be members of a trade union, we’re less likely to eat together, to live with other people, to me members of community associations…
The neo-liberal capitalist mindset has also been a huge contributor to loneliness. Since the 1980s, alongside Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, a new form of economics came to the fore which enshrined the pursuit of self-interest over the pursuit of collective good. That generated the mindset we see today- me first, dog-eat-dog, greed is good… that inevitably begets a world where people feel less connected to each-other, more atomised, and many ended up feeling marginalised and unseen. As the decades continued, this progressed, and more people did get left behind.
Q: What are the health consequences of loneliness?
[Noreena Hertz]: When it comes to loneliness, the stakes are really high for our health. Loneliness is linked with higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. Loneliness also impacts our physical health more broadly – we know that if you’re lonely, you have a 32% higher chance of getting a stroke, a 29% higher chance of having heart disease and 30% higher chance- overall- of dying prematurely against someone who is not lonely. In fact, loneliness is thought to be as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
We’re essentially creatures of togetherness. We are hardwired to connect and so when we’re lonely, an alarm bell goes off within our bodies that triggers fight or flight mode. Our heart rate goes up, our stress levels go up, our pulse rate goes up and our blood pressure goes up. All these symptoms are there to tell you that you shouldn’t stay in this state of loneliness and that you should go find your tribe to hunt and gather with. In modern life- we’re not doing that- and so prolonged periods of loneliness are triggering prolonged periods of high-alert and leading to very negative health outcomes.
Q: How is loneliness contributing to civil, economic and political unrest?
[Noreena Hertz]: Whether we look at the rioters who converged on the capital, the Gamestop Redditors, Incels or Qanon followers, what they have in common is that they’re groups of people who are lonely and craving community. It was through my work on the rise of right-wing populism across the globe that I first started thinking about loneliness and how it was shaping our world. I interviewed right wing populist voters in France, Germany and the United States; what came across time and time again was how lonely they’d been until they found community in whichever movement they became a part of. This is also a group of people who feel lonely in the sense of feeling invisible, unseen and unheard by traditional politicians. Right wing populists have very effectively spoken to this feeling. Trump and Le Pen talk about the ‘forgotten people’ they say ‘we hear you’ – That fundamental need for human connection is missing for significant swathes of our population, and that’s dangerous.
Q: Are our cities and workplaces exacerbating loneliness?
[Noreena Hertz]: If you look at cities- they’re typically designed to foster connections for cars, not people. Open plan offices also foster significant loneliness- which may sound counterintuitive as they seem to bring people together- but in these environments, people wear noise cancelling headphones a lot and research has also shown that open plan offices cause people to communicate with email and messaging more than in-person. In some ways it’s not surprising – it’s a strange panopticon where everyone sees everyone else and that makes people less-willing to present an authentic self and interact with others. Hotdesking is even worse. I remember interviewing one person for my book, Carla, she told me about how she’d taken a few weeks off work for an operation- and her fellow workers took weeks to even notice she wasn’t there. She didn’t have a desk of her own. She didn’t have a neighbour at work. Nobody knew she had gone.
Q: How does social media play a role in our loneliness crisis?
[Noreena Hertz]: Social media is playing a very real role in our loneliness crisis. It creates a fragmented self where we feel disconnected from the version of ourselves that we’re presenting in our feeds. We also spend a lot of times looking at other people’s posts – and that means we always feel that other people have more friends, more likes, more engagements.
This problem is acute among younger people. I interviewed a lot of teenagers in my research and a lot of them said how lonely social media was making them feel. At a time when teenagers are forging their identities, they are feeling constant pressure for likes and affirmation. Children as young as 9 are forging their identities now based on how many likes they receive. I remember one particular interview with a boy, Peter, aged just 14. He told me how he posted on Instagram and then waited and waited for someone to like his posts. When they didn’t’ it made him feel awful and invisible. It’s so heart-wrenching to think of that.
Social media is also taking our attention away. It’s designed to be addictive, and so it takes our attention away from those who are closest to us. We’ve all been in a room with a loved one but had our heads in our phones scrolling through feeds. That phone time comes at the expense of our face-to-face interactions and research shows that face to face interactions are a higher quality interaction for us than zoom or social media.
[Vikas: Do we need to rethink our social norms around social media and phone use?]
[Noreena Hertz]: It’s not just children and teens who spend a lot of time on their phones. We do too. If you have kids, they model your behaviour!
We also need to get the government involved in social media the same way they did with tobacco. Social media platforms are the tobacco companies of the 21st century, and they need to be regulated – especially when it comes to children. These platforms are selling a highly addictive product and continue to allow abuse and hatred on their platforms. Over 33% of all UK 18–24-year-olds have experienced abuse on Facebook. 65% of UK college students have experienced abuse on social media. Government has to get involved.
We need businesses to step-up too. Loneliness is bad for our health and our wealth. We know that lonely workers are less motivated, less productive, less efficient and more likely to leave a company than workers who don’t feel lonely. Loneliness is also bad for our democracy – it’s a catalyst to the rise of right-wing populism.
Q: How can we reconnect society?
[Noreena Hertz]: It’s only the latest iteration of post-1980s capitalism which has disconnected us so much from the common good, our collective interest in care and compassion. Before that, capitalism wasn’t really like that – and if you think about the style of capitalism we observe in continental Europe and Asia – there’s been a much higher emphasis on community. Empathy matters, community matters, moral matters and governments need to step in and regulate businesses that become so powerful that they impact our fundamental values.
Governments have many tools to help fight the loneliness epidemic. They can reinvest in the infrastructure of community. Since 2008, we’ve seen a steady defunding of physical spaces that allow people to come together- public libraries, parks, daycare centres, youth clubs, elderly care centres and community centres. People need physical spaces to gather and connect. Governments can also encourage local businesses – they plan such an important role in anchoring and nurturing communities. Even a 30 second exchange in a local shop or café with a server or seller makes a difference to how we feel and how connected we are. It may be through favourable tax rates for brick & mortar local stores, a new tax status for pro-community businesses…
Businesses can also practically step-up now. When it comes to fostering connection- businesses can institute policies that encourage people to eat together for example. A fascinating piece of research done in Chicago with fire fighters showed that the groups that ate together, performed better and felt less lonely and more bonded. Companies can also incentivise pro-social behaviour. Cisco has a scheme worldwide where anyone in the organisation can nominate anyone else who’s been particularly kind, helpful or compassionate, to get a cash reward of $100-$10,000 for doing something special. Cisco has significantly lower staff turnover than the sector averages and has been voted the best company to work for by its employees.
Business also plays a role in the loneliness economy which will be a booming sector post pandemic. People will look for more ways to reconnect with each other and come together and there’s a real entrepreneurship and innovation opportunity to facilitate that.
Technology also plays a role in alleviating loneliness. Artificial intelligence and social robots have been shown to really help the elderly in particular. Japan is quite ahead of the curve on this front and we’ve seen some touching stories of elderly women knitting bonnets for their robot carers and doing exercise classes alongside their robot companions.
As individuals there is a lot, we can do to combat loneliness. We can put our phones down and be present. We can nurture our local neighbourhoods and consciously try to support our local stores. We can also reach-out to our own network who may be feeling lonely – all it takes is a call or a text to check in and make someone feel heard, seen and thought of.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Noreena Hertz]: I don’t spend much time thinking about legacy – but I do hope that my work and my books help people understand the world better, and perhaps inspire people to change they way they act – creating a better world. If I can play that part in co-creating the future? I’ll be happy.