NOREENA HERTZ at De Balie in Amsterdam

Are we in the midst of a global loneliness crisis?

British economist and author, Noreena Hertz has recently published a new book called, The Lonely Century: How Isolation Imperils Our Future (8th September). At it’s heart lies the question: are we in the midst of a global loneliness crisis and what can we do about it? With the arrival of Covid 19, a growing trend toward both social and political isolation has been exacerbated in many ways. Noreena spoke at the recent Forum on European Culture hosted by De Balie about her book and the dangers of another, more insidious pandemic that also threatens our mental and physical health: loneliness.

‘Loneliness is as bad for our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day’ Noreena tells us. But it is ‘barely on any public health radar’. Hertz’s new book is a mix of large amounts of research on a wide range of human endeavour but is also rich in anecdote. She explains how she spent hundreds of hours interviewing people from around the world, with the intention of exploring loneliness as both personal and political. She argues that it is the result of specific political, social and economic choices that we make and is also strongly linked to what she terms ‘the intrusion of technology into our lives’. 

Describing her book as ‘a call to action’, Noreena argues that re-connecting society must be put at the very heart of the political project to fight loneliness. ‘Big tech, big business and government are all in the dock’ she declares. Yet she agrees too that it can not be a top-down approach only. The future is also in the hands of individuals. One of the anecdotes she mentions from her book is her meeting with a young woman in New York who offers her services as a friend for $40 per hour. It’s not what you may think, and Hertz admits feeling a little apprehensive before their meeting. But this young graduate student literally offers to spend time with lonely professionals, most in their thirties and forties, who want someone to go to a movie  or have a cup of coffee with, perhaps browse some shops. This is exactly what Noreena did with Britney for 3 hours. She described the experience as pleasant and paid the young woman $120 at the end of their three hours together.

‘The frightful five have a duty of care’ – Noreena Hertz.

Noreena Hertz also spent a lot of time interviewing right wing populist supporters from a variety of countries, in preparation for this book. She found that loneliness and a growing sense of social and political isolation came up repeatedly in her discussions with many of them. She mentions Eric, the Parisian baker, who joined Marine Le Pen’s party and Rusty, the Trump-voting railroader, who would, traditionally have voted for the Democrats. Loneliness has also been defined as feeling one has no place in society. Hertz believes that it is this type of loneliness that is at the root of the rise in populism. This is linked of course to job loss due to automation and the rise of the gig economy which creates jobs that lack rights and status. The author cites research done in the United States showing that states which had automated more rapidly, are the ones most likely to vote for Trump.

Technology, in the form of social media is also a key culprit in the growth of loneliness, Hertz argues. She believes that social media companies or ‘the frightful five’ as she calls them, have a duty of care to their consumers and likens the situation to tobacco companies in previous decades. Both products are strongly addictive and bad for one’s health. But, like their predecessors, social media companies are ‘not doing nearly enough’ to warn users of the dangers to their health. ‘I think it’s time for government to step in’, the author declares.

Hertz calls for government to provide regulation that encourages both large and small businesses to be rewarded for community-minded projects.  She also speaks of the need to price loneliness so that market forces can be used to fight it. She feels there is a legitimate case to be made for a loneliness tax, particularly with regards to the work place where research shows that 40% of employees globally report feelings of loneliness and isolation at work. Not only does this make them less productive and less loyal, the health costs of loneliness cost governments millions of euros each year. Corona, Noreena points out, has helped us to recognise the importance of community, now we need to build on that.     Souwie Buis    22nd September 2020