Book cover of The Lonely Century

Loneliness has been the scourge of the 21st century. Could the pandemic be a turning point?

Noreena Hertz WG’91 had already rented a friend in New York and paid to be cuddled in Los Angeles—among other research for her latest book, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart (Currency)—when the pandemic suddenly thrust loneliness into the forefront of everybody’s mind. Hertz, a broadcaster, academic, and public speaker who holds an honorary professorship at University College London’s Institute for Global Prosperity, quickly rewrote, weaving references to the novel coronavirus’s impact into her argument. “The pandemic was only amplifying and exaggerating the fault lines I’d already identified,” she says.

Hertz, whose previous books have tackled the perils of unregulated capitalism, the problem of international debt, and the art of decision-making, sees rising loneliness as the product of political, social, and technological forces. “My definition goes beyond craving intimacy or feeling disconnected from your friends and family. It’s also about feeling disconnected from your employer, from your government,” she says.

The Lonely Century, which was published in February,offers a wide range of post-pandemic solutions to the loneliness crisis, including heightened civic engagement and the reinvigoration of public spaces. Gazette contributor Julia M. Klein spoke to Hertz via Zoom. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the inspiration for the book?

First, I was really struck by the fact that I had increasing numbers of students confiding in me how lonely and isolated they felt. This was a new phenomenon. Second, in my academic research I wanted to better understand the rise of right-wing populism, and, hearing testimonies, one of the things coming out was how lonely [these people] had felt until they found community in the far right. And third, I found myself feeling increasingly affectionate towards my Amazon Alexa, which made me interested in the role that technology and AI and social robots are likely to play in our futures. That alerted me to the rise of what I’ve called the loneliness economy.

You’ve suggested that loneliness is, in part, a product of capitalism. But you’ve also noted that capitalism has produced rental friends, robot companions, professional cuddling partners. Are these solutions—or symptoms of the problem?

I view them as solutions. I think capitalism’s greatest strength is its power of innovation. In my research, I did explore some of the more extreme market solutions: I rented a friend in New York, and I paid to be cuddled in Los Angeles.

You come down hard on our immersion in smartphones and social media—technologies designed to be connective that you argue are making us lonelier. How do we balance the perils and pluses?

There obviously are constituents for whom social media has provided a lifeline. For instance, the LGBTQ kid in the small town in the Midwest who wouldn’t have otherwise found her people. But we’ve never had a technology we’ve been this addicted to, that’s been this omnipresent. Social media is playing a role in making us lonely because it’s stealing our time and attention away from in-person interactions, which are deeper and of a higher quality. Other problems include how polarizing those platforms are, and how excluding. There’s so much bullying on these sites. They are the tobacco companies of the 21st century and should be regulated as such—especially when it comes to children.

You advocate building bridges between people of different socioeconomic classes and political opinions. That seems utopian.

We can bring different types of people together. I’ve drawn ideas from what already is happening, whether it’s French President Emmanuel Macron’s pilot scheme of civic service for teenagers, or the scheme in Germany by a newspaper which brought together people of opposing views to converse, or the Rwandan example of compulsory service.

If you’re not afflicted by personal loneliness, what’s the motivation to heal these social and political rifts?

You did end up living in a society where Trump did win the 2016 election, so if more centrist politics is your aspiration, then you have a real motivation for bridging these political divides—a self-interested one. There’s an economic and a social cost when society is fragmented and polarized.

Do you see differences between Britain and the United States with regard to loneliness?

The United Kingdom has been on a very similar trajectory to the United States for decades now. The loneliness data are pretty indistinguishable between the UK and the US: 60 percent of adults consider themselves lonely. More than one in five American millennials say they have no friends. It’s about the same in the UK.

These data predate the pandemic?

Right. And since then what we’ve seen is an increase in loneliness across the globe. There are certain groups that are disproportionately lonelier: like low-income workers, the young, and women. They’re having to do more of the childcare, more of the housekeeping. We’ve seen a rise in domestic abuse during the pandemic, and there’s nothing lonelier than being in an abusive relationship.

How much hope do you have that we’ll be able to have more communal, less solitary lifestyles post-pandemic?

We can find some succor in the past. Only a few years after the 1918 Spanish flu, bars and nightclubs and cafés were full to the gills. We are creatures of togetherness. We are hardwired to connect. I don’t believe for a minute that this is the new normal and that, moving forward, we will choose to conduct our lives on Zoom. Because we’ve all been through this collective experience of isolation, loneliness is now something that is being destigmatized. And I think we appreciate our local communities more. Some of the values that were subordinated in recent years—kindness and care for each other—have been recognized as important once again.

What are some ideas that will help moving forward?

Reinvest in the infrastructure of community. What we’ve seen since the 2008 financial crisis was a real slashing of funding to public libraries, public parks, youth community centers, elderly care centers. People need to have physical spaces where they can do things together. We need to nurture our local communities, pledge to do more shopping at our local stores, show up at community events. Businesses also have a role to play. One of the things that came out of my research was the incredible effect eating together can have. There was a study from the US where they found that firefighters who ate together not only felt much more bonded to each other, but also performed twice as well.

What about individuals?

We can think about whether there’s someone in our own network who might be feeling lonely and reach out to them. Because just showing someone that they are visible, that you are thinking about them, can make a huge difference.

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