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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
What are some
ideas that will help moving forward?
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.
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.