Bartleby You’ll often walk alone
Loneliness is a widespread problem with complex roots
There has been a quiet pandemic developing while most people’s attention has been on covid-19. The lockdown has exacerbated a problem that has been spreading in many developed nations for decades: loneliness.
It is a complex issue which covers not only social lives, but the way you work and the way you vote. Noreena Hertz, an academic, tackles the subject in an important new book, “The Lonely Century”.
Loneliness increases the risk of heart disease, strokes and dementia. Those who say they are lonely are likelier to be depressed five years later. In addition, lonely people can become more hostile towards others and more attracted to extremist politics.
Part of the problem stems from contemporary employment. Globally, two in five office workers feel lonely at work. This rises to three in five in Britain. Gig-economy jobs can leave people with insecure incomes and without the companionship of colleagues. The pandemic has made it more difficult to make, and maintain, friendships, particularly for new employees.
Even before the crisis, the hope that open-plan offices would encourage greater camaraderie proved to be false. Many people find the chatter distracting and retreat with noise-cancelling headphones; they then email colleagues who are sitting only a few desks away.
Co-working spaces, where young professionals can take advantage of communal facilities, have not been the answer either. Workers are not there long enough to invest in relationships. As Ms Hertz puts it: “Hot deskers are the workplace equivalent of the renters who’ve never met their neighbours.”
It may seem odd that loneliness can grow when people are surrounded by so many others. But this paradox was best expressed by the band Roxy Music, when they sang “Loneliness is a crowded room”. Most people will be perfectly content, for a while at least, eating on their own at home, perhaps with a good book or the telly. Sitting all alone in a restaurant or a bar, surrounded by other people chatting, is a much more isolating affair.
By the same token, big cities can be very isolating. In a survey from 2016, 55% of Londoners and 52% of New Yorkers said they sometimes felt lonely. In many cities, around half of all residents live on their own, and the average tenancy of a London renter lasts 20 months. City-dwellers are less likely to be polite, because they are unlikely to meet a passer-by again.