This is the Lonely Century
Our smartphones and social media are just two pieces of the puzzle though. The causes of today’s loneliness crisis are numerous and diverse.
The trend for some time now has been that even when we do stuff ‘together’, for increasing numbers of us this isn’t in the physical presence of another person: we ‘attend’ yoga class on an app, ‘speak’ to a customer service chatbot instead of a human salesperson, livestream a religious service from our living room or shop at Amazon Go, the tech giant’s new chain of grocery stores where you can leave with your shopping without having had any contact with another human being. Even before the coronavirus struck, contactless was starting to become our way of life, our active choice.
At the same time, the infrastructure of community those shared physical spaces where people of all stripes can come together, interact and form bonds – has been severely neglected at best and at worst actively destroyed. It’s a process that began in many places before the 2008 financial crisis, but accelerated markedly in its aftermath as government policies of austerity took a sledgehammer to libraries, public parks, playgrounds and youth and community centres across much of the world. In the UK, for example, a third of youth clubs and nearly 800 public libraries were shut down between 2008 and 2018, while in the US, federal library funding decreased by more than 40% between 2008 and 2019.
Why this matters so profoundly is because such places are not only where we come together, but also where we learn how to do so, places where we practise civility and also democracy, in its inclusive form, by learning how to peacefully co-exist with people different to us and how to manage different points of view. Without such spaces that bring us together it’s inevitable that we will pull ever further apart.
We often imagine a lonely person as passive, quiet, muted. Indeed, when many of us remember the loneliest times in our lives we don’t immediately recall a hammering heart, racing thoughts or other typical signs of a high-stress situation. Loneliness instead evokes associations of stillness. Yet the chemical presence of loneliness in the body – where it lives and the hormones it sends coursing through our veins – is essentially identical to the ‘fight or flight’ reaction we have when we feel under attack. This stress response fuels some of the most insidious health effects of loneliness.
These can be far-reaching and even, in the worst cases, deadly. So when we are talking about loneliness we are not just talking about lonely minds, but also lonely bodies. The two are of course intertwined.
It’s not that our bodies aren’t used to stress responses – we experience them pretty frequently. A big presentation at work, a close call while cycling, watching our football team take a penalty, are all commonplace stress triggers. But typically after the ‘threat’ is over, our vital signs – pulse, blood pressure, breathing – return to baseline. We’re safe. In a lonely body, however, neither the stress response nor crucially the reset happens the way it should.
The Solitary City
Ruder, curter, colder
The image of a rude, curt, self-absorbed urbanite is no mere stereotype. Studies have shown that not only is civility lower in cities, but also that the more densely populated a city, the less civil it is.
This is partly a matter of scale; when we know we are much less likely to see a passer-by ever again, we feel we can get away with a certain lack of courtesy (perhaps bumping into them and not apologising, or maybe even leaving a door to slam in their face). Anonymity breeds hostility and carelessness, and the city, filled with millions of strangers, is all too anonymous.
The size of the city not only breeds brusqueness, it also imposes on many of us a kind of coping mechanism. In the same way that when we are confronted with twenty choices of jam in a supermarket our default is to buy none at all, so too when confronted with all those people our response is often to withdraw. It’s a rational response to avoid feeling overwhelmed. For although engaging with others as full, vibrant human beings is something many of us aspire towards or tell ourselves we do, the reality is that city living requires us to share space with so many people that were we to extend each passer-by a full dollop of humanity it would exhaust our social resources.
The kind of roof over our head is only one structural factor that impacts how lonely urban life can feel. Another component of the isolation of city life is that urbanites increasingly live on their own.
This was once a more rural phenomenon. In the United States in 1950 it was in sprawling western states like Alaska, Montana and Nevada that those living alone were predominant because it was to these late-developing, land-rich states that single migrant men went to seek fortune, adventure or a steady job as a labourer. Today, however, solo living is most common in big cities such as New York City, Washington DC and Pittsburgh.
For some solo living is undoubtedly an active choice, a mark of independence and economic self-sufficiency. Others may very much want to live with a partner but have not yet met the ‘right one’, possibly because of the long hours they work, their feelings around financial insecurity or the challenges of dating in the digital age.
Whatever the reasons, not everyone living alone is lonely. In fact, living alone can provide an impetus to get out and interact that those living with others don’t necessarily have.
Yet the data is unambiguous: people who live alone are at a significantly greater risk of feeling lonely than those who live with others by nearly ten percentage points, according to the European Commission’s 2018 Report on Loneliness. Moreover people living on their own feel lonely more frequently than people living with others, especially during life’s most difficult or vulnerable times.
Our Screens, Our Selves
Two hundred and twenty-one. That’s the number of times we check our phones on average each day.
Digital distraction has become so bad that in Sydney, Tel Aviv and Seoul, cities with particularly high smartphone usage, urban planners have taken drastic steps to manage public safety. Stop/Go’ lights have been installed into the pavements so that pedestrians can see whether it is safe to cross without having to look up from their screens. One road in Seoul is even deploying lasers at crossings, which trigger a notification on the ‘zombie’ pedestrian’s smartphone, warning them that they are about to step into traffic.
Together, yet alone
For it is not just the busyness and pace of urban living that stymies us from smiling at a fellow patient at the doctor’s surgery or nodding to another passenger on the bus, nor even contemporary social norms. Every moment in which we are on our phones, scrolling, watching videos, reading tweets, commenting on pictures, we are not present with those around us, depriving ourselves of the multiple daily social interactions that make us feel part of a wider society – those small moments of feeling seen and validated that, as we saw, really do matter. Just having a smartphone with us changes our behaviour and the way we interact with the world around us. In a recent study, researchers found that strangers smile significantly less at each other when they have their smartphones with them.
Love my avatar
By turning us into ever more insecure hustlers intensely pursuing likes, follows and online social kudos, social media also encourages us to do something else: to present ever less authentic versions of ourselves online.
Nobody puts on Facebook ‘I have just spent the whole weekend in my pyjamas eating ten packets of Hobnobs and watching Friends.’ Instead, the lives we share online are a curated series of aspirational highlights and happy moments, parties and celebrations, sandy white beaches and mouth-watering food porn. The trouble is that such Photoshopped, filtered versions of ourselves are all too often fundamentally disconnected from our own authentic being.
This might sound extreme, but it isn’t an imaginary scenario. Increasing numbers of young people are approaching plastic surgeons with photos of their Photoshopped, filtered, digitally altered selves. In 2017, 55% of the surgeons of the American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery had at least one patient bring in a Photoshopped selfie and ask them to recreate it, a 13% increase on the year before. The AAFPRS expects this trend only to grow.
Social media is not only turning us into salespeople, with our product being our commoditised and repackaged self – it’s also internalising BOMP (Belief that Others are More Popular) making many of us feel not only less popular than those around us, but also that our real selves are less popular than our digitally enhanced ones. And that is fundamentally alienating.
Alone at the Office
Open-plan and lonely
A space with no dividing walls or cubicles, workers sitting at long rows of desks, pecking away at their keyboards, all breathing in the same recycled air: welcome to the open-plan office.
In recent times most of the concern about open-plan offices has centred, understandably, on their biohazardous nature. A study conducted by Korea’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracked a coronavirus outbreak at a call centre in Seoul in February 2020, showed how within just over two weeks of the first worker becoming infected more than ninety others who worked on the same open-plan office floor also tested positive for Covid-19.13 But it’s not just our physical health that this design choice endangers. One of the reasons so many office workers feel alienated from each other is because they spend their days in large, open-plan layouts.
This may seem counter-intuitive. Indeed, when open-plan offices were first introduced in the 1960s they were heralded as a progressive, near utopian design concept which would – or so the theory went – create a more sociable and collaborative working environment where people and ideas could more naturally mix and mingle. Its advocates today make the same claims. Yet, as we’ve seen in the context of cities, our physical space can significantly impact how connected or disconnected we feel. And it turns out that the open-plan office – by far the most common type of layout nowadays, comprising half of offices in Europe and two-thirds of offices in the US open plan – is especially alienating.
The digital takeover of the workplace
At work as in our personal lives, talking to each other has been increasingly replaced by the tapping of keys, even when it would be easier and quicker to communicate in person. This also contributes to workplace loneliness. As many as 40% of workers report that communicating with colleagues over email makes them ‘very often’ or ‘always’ lonely.
This is not surprising given the quality of exchanges in the typical work email: transactional rather than conversational, efficient rather than affable, sterile rather than warm. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ were early casualties of our go-go-go 24/7 information-overloaded work lives. Under ever greater time pressures, our inboxes constantly replenishing, our emails, like our texts, have become ever shorter and terser. And the greater our workload, the less civil our emails.
The rise of remote working – it is estimated that by 2023 over 40% of the workforce will be working remotely the majority of the time – risks making worker loneliness significantly worse. Most alarming, though not unsurprising given our ‘use it or lose it’ propensity, was the impact of remote working creeping into their daily lives. ‘When I stay alone in front of the laptop for a long time and then go out somewhere – I feel like I forgot how to talk and communicate with people properly for a couple of hours until recovered,’ posted Ahmed Sulajman, a software engineer and start-up CEO in Ukraine. ‘I find it’s hard to switch between messages and real-world communication.
Digital technology has collapsed the boundaries between our working and personal lives, with many workers feeling that they have to go along with these new rules of engagement or risk the disappointment or disapproval of their bosses. Yet many of us must also ask questions of ourselves when it comes to how complicit we are in this always-on, always-working culture that the digital age has enabled. Is it our demanding boss that’s ‘making us’ open that email at the dinner table, or our digital addiction and dopamine craving? And could it be that sometimes we do have a choice, it’s just that we are wary of exercising it? Perhaps we mistakenly think we would look less than committed if we didn’t answer that email out of hours; or maybe in an age in which slogans such as ‘hustle harder’ and ‘rise and grind’ are not ironic but aspirational, it’s that many of us have come to see our own worth as being so fundamentally intertwined with our productivity and how much we earn, that we put the demands of our workplace before everything else.
Whatever the reason, the upshot is that many of us find ourselves responding to bosses, clients and colleagues during family time, school plays and even in bed late at night when in reality our reply could wait until we were back at work the following day – and despite the fact that this disruption of our precious time with family and friends renders us more disconnected, not only at work but in our private lives too.
Paid to care
2019 the UK’s biggest energy company, Centrica, introduced an additional ten days of paid leave for its employees who are caring for their aging parents or other loved ones with disabilities.
Such moves can serve a financial purpose as well as a compassionate one: the company estimates that such policies would save the UK’s largest companies £4.8 billion that they would otherwise lose to unplanned absences when carers need to deal with emergencies. Nationwide Building Society offers its employees two days a year to dedicate to helping their local communities. The US-based technology giant Salesforce goes even further – its staff are provided up to seven days of paid volunteer time per year.
Meanwhile, in 2019, Microsoft ran an experiment in its Japan office in which it gave the entire 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row, without decreasing pay. It also provided each employee with financial support of up to 100,000 yen (about £750) to spend on taking a family trip. The results were astounding. Not only were workers happier but meetings became more efficient, absenteeism fell by 25% and productivity shot up a staggering 40%. At the same time fewer workers in the office meant significant cost savings and environmental benefits: during the trial period, electricity use decreased by 23%, and 59% fewer pages of paper were printed.
Such examples give hope. They show that there are innovative and effective ways to tackle employee loneliness not only in the workplace, but also outside of it. And that the companies which employ these kinds of strategies can enjoy both a happier work-force and bottom-line benefits. Whilst such policies might feel like luxuries your company cannot afford, we cannot allow the economic consequences of Covid-19 to further institutionalise selfishness in society.
Care and capitalism need to be reconciled.