Review of The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz

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The Lonely Century is a book that argues we are living in an age of extreme loneliness. Noreena Hertz has done her research. She points to colleges that are needing to teach students how to interact with other people face-to-face. Elderly Japanese women who are committing petty crimes in order to be sent to prison, in order to alleviate their loneliness. And single people who eat their meals whilst watching YouTube celebrities also eat, a practice known as mukbang.

Few millennials would not recognise the bleak portrait she paints in her opening chapters.

Why are we so lonely?

Hertz argues that this loneliness is the product of:

  • Poorly funded social infrastructure, and investment in ‘hostile’ architecture such as anti-homeless benches
  • Screen addiction, and the fact that social media companies design their apps to be addictive
  • The gig economy, and the trend towards hot desking, open plan workspaces etc.
  • The collapse of social organisations such as trade unions (and churches)
  • Urbanisation, migration, temporary accommodation that generates a feeling of rootlessness
  • The decline of the high street
  • The trend towards ‘contactless’ shopping, whether by the rise in e-commerce or the introduction of self-scan checkouts.

And so on. These pressures combine to isolate us.

The way we now live, the changing nature of work, the changing nature of relationships, the way our cities are now built and our offices designed, the way we treat each other and the way our government treats us, our smartphone addiction and even the way we now love are all contributing to how lonely we have become.

Noreena Hertz, The Lonely Century

What is the impact of loneliness?

Hertz argues that loneliness has a profound impact on us. Lonely people become more suspicious and aggressive. They are more anxious, and they are sicker. Loneliness has been implicated in everything from heart disease to hypertension. She notes that the rise of populist politics can be linked to loneliness fraying our trust in each other and in government.

Hertz’s data is compelling. As an older millennial, I have witnessed the way technology has utterly upended the way we interact with each other and do business. I have felt the social anxiety of walking into a room full of strangers for the first time and tried to figure out how to talk to people (and the overwhelming compulsion to scroll twitter instead).

What can we do about loneliness?

Hertz recommends a range of things we can do to alleviate loneliness. These suggestions mainly focus on structural changes, which I appreciate. A lot of books like this blithely talk about the gig economy and inequality being reasons for causing negative change and then turn around and put all the onus for improvement on the individual.

Hertz doesn’t fall for this; her book is a challenge to governments to invest in public spaces and to regulate social media. She also lays down a challenge to businesses to prioritise and make time for human connection, such as by allowing flexible work schedules to allow people to care for each other.

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I have to admit, I felt quite cynical that any of this might come about. Hertz might suggest my cynicism arises from my own loneliness and lack of community, I don’t trust the government to have my back or give a damn about me, and I certainly don’t trust big business. As such, the solutions given in this book are both the only ones that will probably work, and also feel like a bit of a utopian dream.

As we rebuild our post Covid-19 world, governments have a rare opportunity to seize the moment, act transformatively and rethink priorities on a fundamental level.

Noreena Hertz, The Lonely Century

Can we really create a ‘caring capitalism’?

With that said, I also think Hertz doesn’t go quite far enough. She squarely blames neoliberal capitalism as being a root cause of loneliness, with its short-term profit motives and lack of emphasis on care. And yet her solution is to suggest a more ‘caring capitalism’. I would argue that capitalism is at its core is incompatible with a caring society. Hertz pulls examples of loneliness from many countries, with varying types and degrees of capitalism. Capitalism at its most reductive is about private ownership; ownership of ‘capital’ that is used to produce ‘growth’. It is intimately entwined with colonialism and claiming ‘unclaimed’ resources. It is inherently unsustainable, as capital concentrates into a smaller and smaller number of hands and ‘unclaimed’ resources becomes an ever-dwindling pool.

When you couple the rise in loneliness with a host of other ‘capitalism-fuelled’ issues like climate change, it seems to me that what we need is less a tweaking of capitalism and more a paradigm shift. We need to de-centre economic growth in our list of priorities and instead start to centre wellbeing, happiness, sustainability, tolerance, trust and kindness.

Is this possible? Perhaps! And The Lonely Century does include several examples of countries that are starting down this difficult path, including New Zealand and Bhutan. As the pressures and costs of our lonely, unsustainable way of life become ever starker, we must resist the pressure to descend into fighting and blame and instead come together to fashion new ways of living and being in the world.

Should you read The Lonely Century?

Overall, this was a meticulously researched and well-written book, and I would recommend it. Hertz is tackling a serious issue that affects all of us. She has plenty of evidence to back up what she says and the book itself is well-written and engaging. Whilst it does come off a little bleak, especially if you don’t buy into the possibility of things changing for the better, we need to use non-fiction books like this to open ourselves to new ideas. Putting new ideas into the world for discussion is the first step of bringing about a paradigm shift, and as such it is worth reading this book.

Plus it would be an excellent choice for a book club, book clubs being a small form of community and public forum for discussion that is exactly the sort of thing Hertz would say we need to do more!

If you buy The Lonely Century from Amazon and use this link, I will get a small commission.

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