Books Driving Change: Noreena Hertz and The Lonely Century

“Loneliness thrives in an ecosystem that its drivers are structural, and political, and economic, as well as to do with choices we make as individuals, and therefore that its solutions need to be comprehensive. That we can solve today’s loneliness crisis, but only if we as government, we as business leaders, and we as individuals, make a decision to do so.” — Noreena Hertz

Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Books Driving Change with me, Matthew Bishop. Today I’m talking with Noreena Hertz, British economist and author of the book, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart. It’s a terrific book, a great read. I learned a lot, everything from interesting thoughts about the gig economy and the challenges of that, to Britain’s appointment of a loneliness minister, through to things like sex with robots and even ceramic dildo making classes, which is, I have to confess, a new one to me.

But it’s a very positive book about a very tough situation that the world is in a century that, according to Noreena, is defined by loneliness, and how we respond to that with what she calls “a new loneliness economy.”

Noreena, given our audience is people who are trying to build back better and feel some kind of call to public service, whether they’re in business or in government, or in the civil society, what, in a sentence, are they going to learn from reading your book?

Noreen Hertz (NH): I hope they take away from the book that loneliness thrives in an ecosystem, that its drivers are structural, and political and economic, as well as to do with the choices we make as individuals, and therefore that its solutions need to be comprehensive. That we can solve today’s loneliness crisis, but only if we as governments, we as business leaders, and we as individuals, make a decision to do so.

MB: Great. Now why — again, in a nutshell — why do you feel that this century, more than any other, is the lonely century?

NH: Well, we see it empirically in the data. Since the 1980s, we’ve seen a steady rise in loneliness levels. So even before the pandemic struck, one in five millennials said that they didn’t have a single friend at all, which is quite a stark figure. Forty percent of office workers said that they were lonely at work. One in 10 Americans said that they felt lonely “always” or “often.”

So, even before the pandemic struck, we knew that loneliness was a problem, and one that was empirically worse than in the preceding decades. Which, of course, begs the question, “Why?” What’s more, what’s different, what’s been going on?

There are a number of reasons why this is so, from the way we’ve increasingly designed our cities — more for cars, really, than for people — to the fact that ever since 2008, the financial crisis, we’ve seen a steady defunding of what we might think of as the infrastructure of community; of public libraries, public parks, youth clubs, daycare centers, and elderly care centers. People need physical spaces to come together, but these have been really depleted in recent years.

But also factors like what we might think of as an increasingly individualistic mindset that we see has really taken hold over the past few decades. We’re living in a world in which people have increasingly come to see themselves as hustlers, rather than helpers; as takers rather than givers; as competitors, rather than collaborators. And, of course, that always was going to beget a more lonely world. So those are just some of the reasons why this, today, is the loneliest century we’ve seen.

MB: It’s very interesting also, that you talk a lot about the digital economy, and how that plays into all of those trends that you’ve just mentioned. And I think, obviously, the pandemic has been a step change in the digitization of our lives. You know, some people would say it’s probably accelerated the digital revolution by 10, 20 years. We just capitulated on a whole bunch of things that we used to feel we could do offline and let online take over.

I wonder for you, are you now expecting to see the problems that you’ve written about be significantly worse now, and more challenging as we come out of the pandemic? Or do you think that the pandemic has reminded us of what really matters — the human connection and so forth, and therefore, maybe, we shouldn’t be so worried coming out of the pandemic?

NH: I think we’re seeing two contradictory trends emerging at the same time right now. And it’s hard to know, definitively, which will prevail. The first speaks to our innate need for togetherness, the fact that we are hardwired to want to be with other people, that we are creatures of togetherness. And that actually, especially after the past year, we want to be together more than before. We’re seeing this playing out in terms of people rushing back to cinemas and theaters where they’re open, to bars and cafes, to music festivals, and nightclubs.

So we are seeing people speaking to that hardwired desire to be with others. And we are seeing this playing out. As we might have expected after a period of social deprivation, in the same way that after a period of fasting, we become more hungry. In many ways, we’re craving togetherness more.

But at the same time, what we’re seeing has been this massive acceleration towards what I call a contactless way of living. So this is something which obviously had begun before the pandemic; people buying their groceries online or ordering their food on GrubHub, or “doing yoga with Adrienne,” it all existed before the pandemic. But during the pandemic, as you rightly said, this is massively accelerated.

And the big question is, are people going to trade off — not necessarily consciously — community and connection for the convenience of not having to leave your sofa, and being able to consume or experience things or even do your exercise class? Will the appeal and the allure of what the tech community calls “frictionless living” prove to be so great, that in the process, we choose not to rub up against each other, losing not only our sense of connectedness with others, and not only inevitably making ourselves feel lonelier, but also in the process, in danger of losing the skills that in many ways, underpin inclusive democracy? Because these skills: reciprocity, civility, thinking about others, other than ourselves, are actually things that we practice in our day-to-day interactions when we do things with other people.

So when we’re in the yoga studio, and we’re thinking about where to place our mat and being conscious that we don’t want to downward dog in someone else’s face — that’s a moment when we’re practicing the skills that underpin inclusive democracy. When we’re wheeling our trolley in the grocery store, and we’ve paused to help an old lady reach for a jam jar on a high shelf — that’s the moment when we’re not thinking about ourselves, but we’re thinking about others.

So my concern is that if we choose contactless over contact, not only do we risk feeling lonelier as individuals, but that as a society, we become less good at connecting, or at least connecting with people who are not only like us.

MB: So what’s your gut telling you? Do you feel which of those two trends is going to win?

NH: I think to some degree, these two very contradictory forces will coexist for some time, and that it is not going to be one or the other. I think it’s partly, of course, to do with the choices — the active choices — we make.

Once we realize as individuals in society that feeling lonely really matters — not only matters in terms of our mental health (with a clear link between loneliness and feeling depressed or anxious), not only matters for our physical health (loneliness is as bad for our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day) — but also matters for our democracy.  As my book makes clear, loneliness and the rise of right-wing populism are interlinked and it affects our economy too, with a clear link between loneliness and lost productivity of workforces, but also costing states billions of dollars in healthcare costs. When one realizes what’s exactly at stake here, then, hopefully, we choose  — we actively choose — contact.

But I think we will need to make that active choice, because the allure of contactless is strong — is really strong. I mean, in the same way that the allure of digital has been so strong, with young people, especially, many migrating their social relationships to their phones, even before the pandemic, of course.

MB: Obviously, a lot of this is going to play out over the next year or two in the return to work and whether we return to work, and how we return to work. And there’s a lot in the book about, you know, the WeWorks of this world; this hot desking phenomena and so forth, which you identify, in a sense, as some of the attractions of that model, but also many of the failings of that model.

But how do you think we’re going to handle that? Are we going to want to go back to the office? We probably will want to see our colleagues, quickly, for a little while. But we’ll probably also, once we have done, quickly appreciate the virtues of sitting at home in our office, with all our familiar things around us and our family and so forth. What do you see as the big challenges as we come out of the lockdown and the pandemic, trying to think about how we work together in the future?

NH: I think it’s really important to recognize that different people have different experiences of working at home. And people who’ve got nice houses and nice home offices and a family who you want to be around, this can be a very rewarding, nice experience, and sparing a commute. But for some people, working from home isn’t this idyll, and they’re working from a tiny table in their bedroom, and with roommates who they don’t necessarily want to be around.

So, I think it’s recognizing that when we’re talking about, “Do people want to go back to work?” we should be asking this question much more granularly. Do certain groups — age groups, socioeconomic groups — likely want to go back to work faster, more? We’re seeing, already, splits along gender lines with men, and young men in particular, wanting to go back to work more than other groups. So I think that’s something to think about.

MB: These are all the friendless millennials, are they basically, that are out there?

NH: I mean, they are friendless as a generation — shockingly friendless. I mean, really concerningly friendless, and lonely. And I think from employers’ perspectives, it’s about recognizing that, actually, loneliness is bad for business.

Lonely workers are less motivated, less productive, less efficient, more likely to quit a company than a worker who isn’t. People who have a friend, a good friend, at the workplace are seven times more likely to be engaged with their jobs than people who don’t. So we know that loneliness at work, actually, is a huge problem for companies, yet barely on most companies’ radar.

So I think when they’re thinking about the workplace post-COVID, rather than the question being, “Should everyone be coming back into the office or not?” There’s a bigger question to answer which is, “How do we make our employees feel less lonely and more connected to each other and, of course, to us as well?”

And there are lots of things in the book that I talk about on this particular front. Take, for example, the importance of eating together. There was fascinating research done in Chicago with firefighters, whereby the researchers found that companies of firefighters who ate together not only felt significantly more bonded to each other, but actually performed twice as well, as companies of firefighters who didn’t eat together.

Giving your employees more voice clearly must be part of the solution, if the aim is to make your employees feel more connected to you as the employer, because loneliness is also, of course, about feeling invisible, unheard, and unseen. So if you don’t want your employees to feel lonely, that’s something to address as a company. So as you’re redesigning your workplace post-COVID, are you giving your employees enough voice in this process?

One of the best co-working spaces that I saw — co-working and co-living spaces — in my research was one which had very demonstrably, significantly higher levels of members feeling connected, and connected to each other — not lonely. When I asked them what they thought was key to their success, they said something that really stuck with me. They said that whereas the other co-working spaces and co-living spaces, they’ll lay on all these activities for their members to do — the ceramic dildo-making classes, etc. He said that instead of thinking that, “If we build it, they will come. What we do is we really get our members to come up with their own ideas for what activities we should be doing, and ideas to bring us together.”

“If they build it, they will stay,” is their maximum. And I think that’s really applicable for the workplace as well.

There are, of course, other proven things when it comes to employees feeling more connected. Besides eating together, volunteering together is another proven path that companies can take; encouraging staff and providing paid time off to the staff to volunteer together.

But if reconnecting the workforce and mitigating loneliness is something you want to take seriously as a business leader, there’s also a cultural shift, I think, that’s needed. Because if you think about the past few decades, we’ve really, within the workplace, hyper-valorized qualities like competitiveness and determination at the expense of qualities like caring for each other, and helpfulness, and compassion, which have, at best, been overlooked, and at worst, actually been penalized in some companies And yet, if you want your staff to feel connected to each other, that needs to be redressed.

Again, there’s a business case for doing so. Cisco, the global tech company — I was very impressed by a scheme they have in their organization, whereby anyone up or down the organization, from the CEO to the receptionist, can nominate anyone else who’s been particularly kind or helpful for a cash reward of up to $10,000. And, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that by explicitly valuing kindness and care for each other, Cisco’s turnover is half the industry average. And it was voted this year, again, for the fourth year running, as the best company in the world to work for by its employees. By simply recognizing that loneliness is a business problem and recognizing that addressing it helps the bottom line, is key. And then, recognizing that there’s actually a lot you can do as a leader to help your staff feel connected.

Image Source: Niccolo Caranti, via Wikimedia Commons

MB: You’ve already alluded to the connection between loneliness and the rise of right-wing populism. But actually, you make a very interesting point that your book is different from many of the books that have addressed the loneliness issue. Because it’s not taken a sort of right-wing position, which I think is really about how do we rebuild families and all that sort of thing as a solution to loneliness, or the left-wing position, which is much more about the state. Why have you taken this more nuanced view? And what does that mean, practically, for people in politics as they look at this problem, as it is one where there are no off-the-shelf solutions, essentially, that fit traditional politics?

NH: Well, I think it’s a case, actually, that there are things that both the left and the right say on this issue that have truth to them, but it’s not binary. So, yes, it is part of the reason why we’ve got to the situation we’ve got to, is to do with the choices people make. Whether it is the fact that more people live on their own today than at any time before. Whether it’s the fact that people do less with others than they did in the past: are less likely to go to church, less likely to go to Parent Teacher Association meetings, are less likely to be members of trade unions. So, it is partly to do with the choices we make as individuals. And, it’s part of the reason individuals clearly need to be part of the solution themselves. This isn’t just about governments.

And yet at the same time, we need to recognize that there are structural drivers here. Whether we’re talking about the defunding of the infrastructure of communities that I alluded to earlier. The defunding of public libraries, of public parks, etc., that we’ve really seen, since 2008, happen at breakneck speed. Or, whether it’s the fact that social media companies, for example, have been under-regulated despite the fact that we know that they play a very significant part in accelerating and amplifying discord, and directly in making people feel lonely and disconnected from each other.

So, recognizing that there are structural drivers, which governments will need to come in and address. Whether it’s by regulating social media companies better, as is actually happening in the UK now, where we have new legislation being mooted, which will impose a much more stringent duty of care on social media companies than has hitherto been demanded of them with regard to safeguarding, especially children’s psychological and also physical states.

MB: It might be very helpful, actually. The book has quite a lot that was quite new, I think, in terms of how we actually do practical things to deal with this sort of social media platform problem. But also, you had some very thoughtful policy ideas around the future of work and this emerging gig economy and so forth.

But you mentioned two particular political interventions with an explicit loneliness angle. One was the British experiment with the Minister of Loneliness, and the other was the role model of Jacinda Arden in New Zealand. Maybe talk briefly about what lessons we can learn from those things for our audience of people who are wanting to help build back better and to get engaged in public service.

NH: Sure. The United Kingdom has for the past couple of years had an actual Minister of Loneliness. This is a government minister who, within her portfolio, is responsible for loneliness. Is that the way that other governments should go? I would caution against this as being seen as a solution if the British experience is anything to go by; partly because unless you’re really giving this remit to a minister who has clout and voice and putting significant funds into addressing loneliness, this is never going to be more than a band aid — and to a considerable degree, that’s what’s going on in the United Kingdom.

But also, there is a danger that by putting loneliness in a distinct bucket or silo, we’re no, again, addressing the many structural drivers, whether we’re talking about social media companies or the diminishment of our main streets or the infrastructure of community or a whole host of other things, like ensuring that workers can freely associate, or thinking about the links between loneliness and rising rates of unemployment in the face of growing levels of automation, etc, etc. These are all things that cross different political ministries. And so having loneliness as an essentially junior ministerial post, in a little side room, to me, isn’t going to cut it.

I think more inspiring, perhaps, is what Jacinda Arden is attempting to do in New Zealand, whereby she has announced, or she announced last year, that New Zealand will no longer only be looking at gross domestic product — the traditional measure by which governments determine budgetary decisions and policy making. So they won’t only look at progress and anticipated progress on GDP as a reason to initiate policies and programs, but also look at well-being metrics much more broadly, including how lonely do citizens feel, including how trusting the citizens are of each other, and how trusting they are of government.

And I think this is obviously a conversation that’s being had — this isn’t a new conversation — the idea that we could and should be looking beyond GDP. And of course, it was Bhutan that was the originator of having a different measurement system, with its Gross National Happiness metrics. Quite a way back now. But it’s still really New Zealand, in terms of developed countries, that has taken this now to the next level. And I think that is definitely something we should be watching. And learning from, as I’m sure it will have implications — and actionable implications — for other countries, too.

MB: So we’re almost out of time. I’ve got two more questions. One, I think we probably can’t have this conversation about the book without addressing the robots question and particularly the sex with robots. But generally, to what extent is artificial intelligence, robots and so forth, going to be tech’s way of coming up with a solution to the loneliness crisis? Because I found the chapter about this in the book — you were more optimistic, in a way, that robots are going to become part of our lives that will provide genuine comfort and a sense of companionship than I really expected. And you actually talked about this whole notion of a loneliness economy, which is going to grow quite fast in response to the challenges and needs of lonely people.

NH: Yes the market, as ever, is proving to be effectively deploying its powers of innovation when it comes to tackling the problem of loneliness. We saw this before the pandemic, with things like co-working and co-living spaces and the rise in appetite for shared experiences, from escape rooms to music festivals. And we’re likely to continue to see the loneliness economy evolve in that way.

But also, as we’d also already seen pre-pandemic, and that has massively accelerated through the pandemic, a rise in technological solutions to loneliness, of which social robots and artificially intelligent devices are really at the forefront. Now, yes, it may be surprising to some to hear that I actually kind of get that robots can help us feel less lonely. I get it from my personal experience. I see how attached I’ve become to my Alexa device at home; this little device that sits in my kitchen, and who I actually feel — I do feel connected to; and if I’m at home, on my own, writing all day, it is nice to sometimes just ask her a question to hear her voice. So I can see it from my own personal experience.

But looking at the literature and looking at data and also interviewing many people, I’ve seen it play out in the real world, most notably within the space of elderly care where social robots are being deployed to a greater extent than elsewhere. So far in Japan, where this has been the case for some years now, you even see elderly women knitting bonnets for their robot carers.

And there was one Israeli startup that I went to see, which makes a social robot called ElliQ, which is specifically designed for elderly care. And they actually shipped thousands of these ElliQ robots to Florida during the pandemic, at the height of the pandemic. And the testimonies of the pensioners, the elderly people who received these ElliQ, were very moving, of people saying, “You know, I would have felt so isolated had I not had my ElliQ to keep me company.”

So I can see that robots can deliver connection. We already have different types of friends in our own lives. So the idea that, along the spectrum of friendship, there isn’t a place for a robot, I think is a mistaken one, especially as robots become ever better at understanding us and ever more emotionally intelligent too, of course. So from an individual perspective, I actually think they could be part of the solution.

It is from a societal perspective that I get more worried because if I start thinking as robots get more sophisticated and ever-better at anticipating our needs and desires, it’d be very easy for us to forgo our human relationships and choose robot relationships instead. And that’s where it all gets very worrying. Because, obviously, robots don’t demand anything of us. They don’t demand that we’re kind to them, they don’t demand that we’re nice to them. They don’t demand that we do anything for them.

So these skills, again, that we need to practice for inclusive democracy — reciprocity, civility — in a world in which robots, if they were to replace humans in our friendships, we would have ever-more limited opportunities to practice those all-important skills. That’s what worries me.

MB: Last question. The audience for this podcast is people who feel some kind of calling to, especially during this pandemic, building back better. And I think we probably all agree that restoring human connection is a key part of that building back better. Is there one piece of advice you would give to people wanting to lead that effort as to how they can really effectively address this loneliness challenge?

NH: One is tricky, because my book is full of many, many ideas that leaders can do in practice. But I think, ultimately, it’s about as leaders taking responsibility for the kind of world in which we want to live, recognizing that your actions, your decisions, whether you’re leading a workforce or whether you’re leading in public service, can really meaningfully impact how connected — or otherwise — we are, and therefore have ramifications that go far beyond how it is we feel, but also political and economic ramifications, too. So, I guess my message is: there’s lots and lots that can be done, once you acknowledge that there’s a problem here. There’s so much you can do. The future is ultimately in each of our hands.

MB: So it really doesn’t have to be the lonely century, it’s just shaping up that way at the moment.

NH: Yeah, we built a lonely world, but it doesn’t have to remain so.

MB: Well, Noreena Hertz, this has been a great conversation about a book which I think is very important. It’s very readable. I enjoyed it enormously. But I also learned a lot. And I think there’s a lot of great practical ideas for anyone involved in public service or leadership, in any aspect of society, to take away and actually implement. And let’s hope you’re right, that we can take this as a wake up call, not build a lonely world, but actually help restore human connection as we build back better. Thank you very much for talking with Books Driving Change.

NH: Thank you very much for having me on.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity.

Matthew Bishop

Matthew is an editorial consultant to Driving Change. An award-winning journalist, Matthew is an internationally recognized expert on the trends and innovations shaping global business, finance and politics, particularly the role of public policy and philanthropy. A graduate of the University of Oxford, Matthew is a former member of the faculty of London Business School. He is best known for his work on "philanthrocapitalism", a word he coined in The Economist to describe how businesses and philanthropists can make a big positive difference in the world. Matthew was a writer and editor at The Economist for over 25 years, including a decade as the magazine's New York Bureau Chief. He then led the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. Matthew has authored several books, including Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World, and The Road from Ruin: A New Capitalism for a Big Society. He co-founded the Social Progress Index, an increasingly influential new measure of how well a society serves its citizens, and the #GivingTuesday movement, which harnesses social media to celebrate giving and drive more effective charity. He launched the 17 Rooms partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brookings Institution and is a co-funder of the Catalyst 2030 network of proven social entrepreneurs. Matthew was honored by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader and was the official report author of the G8 Taskforce on Impact Investing.

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