Life & Culture

Feeling lonely? You're not the only one

We’re more connected than ever before — yet loneliness is endemic,according to economist Noreena Hertz


I am meeting Noreena Hertz on Zoom, which is, of course, the norm these days. Yet in this case it feels almost ironic as we are going to discuss her latest book, which is all about the modern curse of loneliness, or, as she puts it the way in which we are “together but alone.”

Hertz, 54, is an academic, economist, author. In 2001 she was hailed by The Guardian as “one of the world’s greatest young thinkers,” and was duly dubbed “ the Nigella Lawson of economics.” The Lonely Century: A Call to Reconnect, her fifth book came out in 2020, and became an international bestseller, although the pandemic — another irony — meant it was difficult to promote it in person.

Now that events can be held with an audience she’s discussing it with Rohan Silva of Radio 4’s The Disruptors at Jewish Book Week on February 27, the ideas have only become more resonant since publication.

In the book she states her purpose early on: “not solely to articulate the scale of the loneliness crisis in the 21st Century, how we got here, and the ways it will get worse if we do nothing to respond.

“It is also a call to action. To governments and business, but also to each of us as individuals.” After two years of harrowing pandemic, many of us know only too well the feelings of sadness and emptiness that she describes. She quotes many academic studies to show that loneliness is bad for our health, and that nearly half of us feel lonely.

She had been interested in the causes and problems of loneliness before the pandemic. She observed that she was developing a relationship with her Alexa, which led her to explore the “loneliness economy” and robots in the book.

“At the same time, I began to notice that many of my students were telling me they felt lonely,” says Hertz, a professor at UCL. “In addition, through my research into the rise of right-wing populism, I discovered that previously lonely people, those with few friends, were connecting to right-wing groups and finding community in them. Many were lower income people, but not exclusively. Beforehand, they had felt forgotten, forsaken, invisible. We could see this play out at Trump’s rallies, where supporters were chanting songs in unison. They had found a sense of belonging. Lonely people see the world as a more threatening place and right-wing groups offer a safe place.”

She had almost finished the book in March 2020 but delayed publication, waiting to see how the pandemic would pan out. But she soon realised that the loneliness epidemic went far beyond the current crisis.

“In researching the book, what struck me was how loneliness affects all of us ; young, old, married, single,” says Hertz. “Elderly Japanese women who are committing petty crimes so that they can be jailed in order to have a prison community around them; the Ivy League graduate who rents out her services as a friend; young people who work such long hours have no time to make friends; Uber drivers who are judged on their rating, so stay silent for hours on end to avoid upsetting passengers with a sensitive subject. In the US, 60 percent of care home residents never get any visitors.”

So how did this happen? Hertz suggests that we simply do less with other people than we did in the past. People are less likely to go to synagogue or church, and we are more likely to live alone. Technology can separate us — we are all guilty of staring at our smart phones rather than engaging with those around us. Hertz calls phones “weapons of mass distraction”. Even pre-pandemic we had embraced contactless living, ordering takeaways and supermarket deliveries at home rather than going out, doing yoga on Zoom and Peloton classes in front of screens.

“Cities are lonely places where people are rushing by, moving from rental to rental,” she says. “ We often don’t know our neighbour’s names and there is no incentive to create relationships. Then there is what I call ‘hostile architecture’ —cities designed to keep people out. Uncomfortable park and street benches to discourage people from sleeping rough or loitering, street lights that emit a piecing noise which is only perceptible to young ears, or ‘pink’ lighting that highlights acne to stop teenagers hanging around the streets.”

She says the 2008 global financial crisis led to a slash in public expenditure on the places that historically have creates the fabric of society, such as care centres and libraries. She writes that our society marginalises values such as solidarity, compassion, community and togetherness and kindness. “We see ourselves as consumers rather than citizens, hustlers rather than helpers, takers rather than givers. The focus is on the self. We can even see this in the evolution of pop song lyrics — it used to be ‘we and us’, but songs are now ‘I’ focused.”

Add a pandemic on top of all that, with the months of forced lockdowns, social distancing, mask-wearing, fear of sickness and “the other” and you have a crisis.

Happily she has plenty of ideas to remedy the situation. From government regulation on social media companies and investment to restore social structures, creating parks, clubs, day centres and other places where people can meet.

Small interactions, such as a chat with the local barista or greengrocer, can hugely benefit our well-being and decrease loneliness. “From a societal point of view , these are moments when we practice civility and think of other’s needs,” she explains. “For that we need to preserve our local shops and businesses. Indeed, I think businesses can do more to support lonely staff. Research show that lonely workers are less efficient, more likely to quit. Businesses need to make sure people are coming in a number of days a week, ideally the same three days. And that when they are there have the opportunity to have the chance to connect.”

She also encourages volunteering, and initiating or just showing up for community events.
“The Jewish community has traditionally stepped into this space,” says Hertz. “Jewish Care is a model of community care. But government cannot be allowed to abscond its responsibility. From what I have seen, the Jewish community has risen to the challenge in the pandemic. Synagogues have run services, life cycle events and activities online. Organisations have reached out to their members and the community. JW3 did a massive reconfiguration online allowing people to continue learning together.”

She quotes Israeli research showing that Charedim live longer than others, despite an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. “This can be explained by the fact that they do a lot with their fellow community members. They pray and celebrate regularly together and are there for each other in times of need. That connection has a significant payoff.”

Hertz grew up in East Finchley, bearing a famous Jewish name as the great-granddaughter of the former Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz, best known for editing the Chumash that bears his name. Her grandparents and parents were not religious, though she was sent to Kerem School for a Jewish education. She later went to North London Collegiate School and Westminster School, completed her ‘A’ levels at the age of 16, and graduated from UCL at 18 with a degree in philosophy and economics. She went on to attain an MBA from Wharton College, Philadelphia and a PhD in business and economics at Kings College, Cambridge.

Despite the lack of religion, her upbringing, as the daughter of two Israelis , was very Jewish. She told the JC in 2011: “ There was a lot going on in that period to do with Israel when I was a child. My mother was really involved with the refusenik campaign for Soviet Union Jews. They would come and stay at our house, some of them, after they managed to get out of the Soviet Union. There were things that were Jewish-related happening in my house quite consistently but it was more from a kind of activist standpoint.”

Friday nights were family occasions albeit in their favourite Chinese restaurant, and Seder nights were a joyous gathering of Jewish and non-Jewish friends. She continues this tradition with husband, TV executive Danny Cohen with whom she lives in north London.

So, does she get lonely herself? “I’m fortunate in that I have a great partner, a great set of friends and a great family who I am close to. I am also fortunate in that my neigbourhood has a strong sense of community. However, like I’m sure is the case for many reading this piece, the pandemic definitely had moments of loneliness in it for me. Both because I, like others, was deprived of a number of key elements that help mitigate loneliness — hugs, a reassuring pat on the arm from a friend, chats with local shop owners or the receptionist at the gym, the ability to see for many months my sister and my aunts as they live in Israel — but also because there were moments during the pandemic when I. again like I am sure others, felt bereft of agency and voice, powerless and uncared for by our government. Loneliness is both an internal state and an existential one.”

A theme that has run through Hertz’s work for the past 20 years is tikkun olam — healing the world. She often asks herself “How do we repair this world? How do we make it a better place?”

“I was fortunate to be close to the late Chief Rabbi Sacks,” says Hertz. “Reflecting on a conversation I had with him when I was contemplating the book, he reminded me that the first time the expression ‘it’s not good’ is used in the bible in Genesis 2:18 is in the context ‘it’s not good for man to be alone’. My aim is not just to work towards alleviating our own loneliness but to bring people together across generations.”

Noreena Hertz is in conversation with Rohan Silva at Jewish Book Week on February 27.

The Lonely Century - A Call to Reconnect is published by Sceptre

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