The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart by Noreena Hertz

‘We are in the midst of a global loneliness crisis. None of us, anywhere, is immune.’

Here we, living on a planet crowded with humanity. There are people everywhere. How can we have a ‘global loneliness crisis’?  Is it simply a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring us to ‘socially distance’?

In this book, Ms Hertz writes of several different factors that have led to social isolation.  These factors include the impact of (some) technology as face-to-face interactions are replaced by online transactions; changing workplaces; the continuing drift of people from rural communities to the anonymity of cities; the notion of collective good being lost to self-interest. On top of that, and appropriately for now, the COVID-19 pandemic has made distance a virtue.

Why does loneliness matter? Ms Hertz writes that loneliness damages our happiness, health, and wealth. Is it also threatening democratic institutions? Given recent events, including the continuing rise of right-wing extremism it is difficult to disagree.

‘This is the Lonely Century, but it doesn’t need to be. The future is in our hands.’

How can we change? ‘Us’ versus ‘them’ politics cannot help, neither can withdrawal. Most days when I walk, I see people so absorbed in their own devices that they do not see to be at all aware of the world around them. And yet, most people will respond to a greeting. Ms Hertz writes of people ‘renting a friend’, of people interacting by text message (when they could speak in person). She describes a world that is both recognisable and alien to me. Can we change it? Do we want to? It is easier to be angry if you feel alienated.

‘You can’t buy community. You have to prioritise it.’

This is one of the most thought-provoking and interesting books I have read this year. I have seen (and been part of) some fledgling community developments in my own neighbourhood: neighbours looking out for each other; people interacting with each other, gifting time and knowledge. Small community steps. I have also seen the disruption caused when essential services such as bank branches close. Not everyone is comfortable with online transactions and not everyone has online access. And the same with various government service providers. Yes, it may be more ‘cost-effective’ to provide services this way, but it does not take the varying needs of people into account. Sigh.

What are we going to do, if we want to change this?  How (and what) will we change? My thanks to Lisa (ANZ LitLovers LitBlog | For lovers of Australian and New Zealand literary fiction; Ambassador for Australian literature) for introducing me to this book.

‘The future is in our hands.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith