Loneliness, like so many things in post-austerity Britain, has became all about productivity and profitability
Only some of this is true, but it is true enough. I am divorced and live alone in London, a city of 10 million people, around one third of whom live alone. There are four or five people I would consider ‘real’, long-term friends. They are mostly spread across the country and indeed the world, from Durham to New Zealand. Although some friends tell me that I can always talk to them, there is no one who I would automatically feel able or entitled to call in a crisis. This makes me one of the two-thirds of people in the UK who reportedly feel they have no one to turn to if in need. I work largely at home and so can spend several days not talking to anyone face to face, except the staff in my local supermarket or café. I spend a lot of time on screens, both for work and leisure, and have recently tried to cut down on social media as it is making me feel inadequate. Still, if I get rid of it, I will feel more cut off. I am not shy but the more time I spend alone, the harder it is to go out and talk to anyone, and the more anxious I become when talking to strangers or in groups. Recently, my instinct has been to turn down invitations.
This profile puts me squarely into a box of people who the government have deemed likely to be lonely, based on research into the characteristics and circumstances of lonely people. I’m not alone in this box: according to the charity Relate, almost a fifth of adults feel lonely often or all the time. You could say that I’m part of the zeitgeist. Loneliness is hot right now – both in the halls of Westminster and around the kidney-shaped tables of start-ups, incentivised to make a buck out of our unwanted solitude. On Valentine’s day, the BBC launched a loneliness survey and 55,000 people from around the world participated, making it the largest ever survey into the subject. The results were turned into a series of three radio documentaries that aired in October. I’ve lost track of the number of articles I’ve read this year about a woman (because they usually are women) who moved to London and felt achingly alone in the middle of one of the busiest metropolises on Earth. It seems like we’ve been given permission to talk and the floodgates have opened.
Some of the popular press is seemingly contradictory. Headlines such as 'Have Lots Of Friends But Still Feel Lonely?' abound, implying you can be lonely with all the trappings of a connected life. In part, the confusion stems from a lack of a clear definition. If actual isolation is only part of the problem, and people with partners and multiple social connections can still feel lonely, what is actually being tracked and measured here? A reasonable definition is ‘meaningful social connection’, but meaningfulness is clearly subjective.
What is more certain is the impact on health. Apparently, this lonely lifestyle of mine will significantly impair my long-term health, leaving me more vulnerable to heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dementia and suicide. Loneliness, we are told, is an ‘epidemic’. It sits alongside the other epidemics of our time - obesity, drug and alcohol addiction and depression, those common ‘diseases of the will’ which appear to blur the lines between individual irresponsibility and disease.
Like the obese person or the alcoholic, I represent a net cost to the nation and to my employer. (I am also, it seems, more likely to become obese and/or alcoholic if I am lonely). A 2017 report commissioned by the Co-op calculates that employee turnover and reduced productivity due to loneliness amounts to about £2 billion annually in the UK. Given this economic cost of lonely individuals, it was only a matter of time before the state intervened. Sure enough, in January this year the government appointed Tracy Crouch as its (part-time) Minister and armed her with £20 million to address the issue. The fund was established after the death of Jo Cox, who chaired a cross-party commission on loneliness.
You may have gathered from my tone so far that this spotlight on loneliness doesn’t sit entirely well with me. It’s not that I’m against talking about it or doing something about it, rather that loneliness, like so many things in post-austerity Britain, seems to be primarily about profitability and productivity. I can’t help wonder whether the recent political focus amounts to anything more than another puffy wellness campaign and an opportunity for loneliness technologists to make money from the state. It feels like ‘mental health-wash’; a way to appear to address the nation's mental health problems while avoiding inconvenient facts. If the current loneliness ‘epidemic’ stems from our neoliberal society, as some have argued (see box, ‘The society of individuals’), then it seems like our response to it is also depressingly neoliberal. It’s the individual’s responsibility to pull ourselves out of this mess, but please can we spend some money on digital solutions and yoga classes as we go about it?
For starters, take the cheery, Big Society tone to the pronouncements of the Loneliness Ministry to date. Its strategy, which was published in October, promotes innocuous community-based solutions such as the ‘pie and pint’ initiative. Some have grabbed headlines already, such as the suggestion that postmen nationwide will stop to chat to elderly locals (which part of the privatised Royal Mail will be paying for that overtime bill?) The call for community involvement is particularly galling, given that governments since 2010 have gutted mental health and social support services which would have provided a route out of isolation and a richer community life for many.
The strategy offers a business opportunity to those who want to help the lonely – for example, by selling individuals and the NHS apps and digital tools to salve their pain. In return, the business community is hungry for the data the Ministry will gather, so that start-ups can “begin developing their own solutions to help lonely people... It also means there will be greater legitimacy for those already working in this space”, says an author of an article in Elite Business magazine.
When it isn’t tied up with profitability, the discourse around loneliness is closely related to wellness. And in our wellness-obsessed times, one is not supposed to complain about the unnameable wrongness of things. It is ‘negative’ to talk about what saps your time, your energy or the resources you have to make friends. But let’s give it a go, anyway: you work long hours, the trains don’t run on time and you had to live further out to afford a flat, or a room, so you spend even longer trying to get home, then you don’t feel like cooking, you row with partners or children or housemates because you are tired and fed up. All the places to meet others are places to eat or drink, and that costs. Easier just to shut the door and watch Netflix in the few free hours you have. You spend too much time on Facebook, where chat and ‘likes’ give diminishing reward, and real companionship is lost in the parade of smiling selfies, beach views, happy couples and gorgeous children. This is where the responsibility doctrine kicks in: you should be out there, running marathons, taking 6 am yoga classes. You’re not looking after number one. You are isolating yourself. You must make it one of your (preferably written) goals to make meaningful and lasting connections with positive people. Take responsibility for your loneliness!
If the call to positive arms rings deeply untrue, perhaps it is because the solution to loneliness surely ought to involve more than the increasingly hackneyed, fully-responsible self. How did being alone become all about you? Perhaps around the same time that feeling OK became ‘wellness’. A focus on the commonplace, not-quite-medical term ‘loneliness’ suits the trend of glossing over the medical aspects of distress and rebranding mental health issues and feelings of alienation and dissatisfaction as aspects of wellness. Loneliness, with its open and subjective overtones, is clearly preferable in ‘wellness-speak’ to terms such as ‘social isolation’, which would suggest the impact of broader structures on the individual. The uncomfortable truth is that however brilliant, high-achieving and committed to feeling well we might be, we still need the input and companionship of others. We can’t do it alone.
This confused and conflicting set of prerogatives is reflected in the materials put out by the Ministry of Loneliness. On the one hand, we are enjoined to break out of solitude, seek company and engage in activities (a typical wellness trope). On the other, we are told that we may be lonely even if we have all the required attributes of normality. We can’t win. This demonstrates the hollowness of the paradigm of the successful, self-reliant individual, even as it mandates further (profitable) self-care and self-monitoring for loneliness, conveniently ignoring the societal changes our atomised society needs.
As such, the Loneliness Ministry seems destined to be little more than a source of disturbing statistics and ‘wellness-wash’ of the wearying type that now surrounds mental health. There are few more isolating messages than 'look after yourself' - but in a lonely society it appears that is as close to meaningful care and concern as we are going to get.
Society of Individuals
Sitting in front of my screen on another night alone, watching the statistics fly in front of me as I research this article, I wonder how this happened. How did so many of us end up being alone or feeling alone? How did this unhealthy, dysfunctional and crucially, unprofitable society of individuals evolve? To find out, let’s go back to 1979.
Loneliness undoubtedly existed before then but it is hard to imagine a lonelier pronouncement than that of Margaret Thatcher: 'There is no such thing as society. There are individuals and there are families'. Thatcher also told us that there was simply no alternative to the post-1980s existence. Eternal competition, self-betterment and the sovereign individual were the very substance of life. No other could or should be imagined. These are the most direct political origins of our current money and success-obsessed culture, where the individual is king, austerity is accepted and the rich are admired and rewarded with more.
Critics speak of a sociopathic culture in late neoliberalism, referring not only to the brutality of established business practices but to more elusive phenomena: the loss of common purpose, the denigration of motivations other than consumption and self-advancement, the devaluation of caring labour focusing on others. Others speak of demoralisation: 'an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment'. 'Consumerism has filled the social void'. It is no surprise to me that loneliness is the inevitable result.
Ruth Cain lectures on mental health law, medical law and family law at the University of Kent. Her research interests include the politics of mental health. She is currently doing a project on the tracking and quantification of mental health and illness.