Feeling Lonely? You're Not Alone.
Such is the epidemic of loneliness, that the UK government recently appointed its first Minister for Loneliness. The appointment comes in response to a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which reported that over nine million people in the UK often or always feel lonely.
A fifth of the US population feel it, and over a third of the UK’s elderly are affected by it, triggering calls by the UK’s Prime Minister to ‘address the loneliness endured by the elderly.’ But is concentrating on loneliness in the elderly too narrow a focus?
After all, loneliness is not, as The Guardian’s Stewart Dakers points out, about being useless, but being unused. And in our privatised, tech-driven, consumer-based society, aren’t we all becoming - to some extent or another – unused? Loneliness is not a condition of the elderly, it affects any and all of those that come into contact with its pathogens: the breakdown of community, the digitisation of society, the commodification of happiness.
The numbers prove as such. Loneliness does not discriminate against age. A survey by Action for Children found that 43% of 17 –25-year-old's who used their service had experienced problems with loneliness.
Modern life allows us to sit inside our private squares, as we work from home, conversing with each other only in a virtual reality, sustaining ourselves through boxes of delivered groceries and UberEat takeaways. E-forums have become the new water-coolers and self-scanners the new cashiers (until Amazon takes those from us too). We’ve replaced our bank tellers with ATMs, our train guards with machines and our library assistants with digital catalogues.
If there was ever a more apt metaphor for loneliness in the digital age, it would be public officials suggesting that digital assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, might be suitable companions for isolated adults.
Community, that which our species owes so much of its success to, is all but gone.
Our desire for human connection and our need to belong, to take part, to feel engaged, is entirely at odds with our overarching neoliberal ideology, in which there is an increasing drive for efficiency and profit maximization. Digital alternatives, quite simply, are cheaper and easier. And with each new digital revolution, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home – whatever it will be this year – we jump in glee at our cleverness. So smug are we that one more humdrum task of ‘normal life’ has become digital.
And sure, getting the weather update whilst pulling on a pair of jeans in the morning is pretty nifty, but for those at risk of social isolation, the chit chatter at the supermarket checkout is an important source of support.
No doubt digital technologies have their upsides, and social media, in particular, provides on-demand access to connect with others when we so desire. The #joinin hashtag is just one example of the initiatives launched on social platforms to encourage those on their own to engage with others. And as technology continues to ‘optimize,’ privatize, digitalize our lives, we must continue to explore the way that it can connect and engage us.
Our advice to combat loneliness, is to nurture relationships and social connections: speak regularly to family and friends, join groups of like-minded people and take a moment to speak to your neighbours .. preferably in person.