'The Lonely Century': Why the past 20 years have been 'uniquely' isolating, even before isolation of pandemic

Noreena Hertz's new book highlights the effects of loneliness and suggests remedies

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Has there ever been a better – or perhaps worse – time to write about loneliness? According to economist, broadcaster and bestselling author Noreena Hertz, the answer was yes long before the coronavirus pandemic drove the entire planet into various forms of isolation.

Drawing on research from around the globe, in her thought-provoking new book, The Lonely Century, she argues that the first two decades of the new millennium have been supremely, and even uniquely, lonely in our history.

"Half of all adults [in the UK, where Hertz lives] say they feel lonely often or sometimes," she tells The National. "Two in five pensioners say their main company is their television or their pet. Young people are the loneliest generation of all, which is perhaps a little surprising."

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24:  Noreena Hertz attends the ITV Gala at London Palladium on November 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
'The Lonely Century' writer, Noreena Hertz. Wireimage 

According to The Lonely Century, if you live in Dubai, there is a 50 per cent chance you often feel isolated, although you might be relieved to hear the situation is worse in New York and London.

Loneliness afflicts almost half of all office workers, although again London tops the charts with 60 per cent – according to a poll conducted by one of Britain’s largest online hiring platform, Totaljobs.

In this context, this year's "new normal" of quarantines and social distancing makes The Lonely Century seem timely, maybe almost prophetic. "There was considerable irony to having spent two and half years thinking about how lonely and isolated the world was and suddenly the world goes into lockdown. Loneliness and isolation understandably shot through the roof. The data suggests that loneliness and isolation have risen from an already high starting point," she says.

Young people are the loneliest generation of all, which is perhaps a little surprising

Hertz, 53, who submitted the final draft of her book several months before the outbreak of the coronavirus, had to spend March to June revising her entire manuscript.

“What was most striking was how scarily easy it was to weave the new data into the finished book,” she says. “There was nothing substantive I had to change. My general thesis and arguments, the trends I had already identified, were if anything only accelerating and escalating. It was still a lonely world – maybe now a lonelier world.”

The Lonely Century draws on a mind-boggling variety of data sets to support Hertz's argument. The book contains 130 pages of footnotes, almost a third of its total length.

These statistics are also fleshed out by several human-interest stories, such as that of Carl, a successful media executive who ended up living in his car to fund a spiralling addiction to paying for cuddles.

Or even Hertz’s first-hand experience of “Rent-a-Friend”, which provides on-the-clock chums who, for $40 an hour, will tell you how great you look in that skirt.

Hertz also explains why loneliness is harmful. One study estimates that it’s as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. “When we are lonely, our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure rises and our cortisol levels – the levels of stress in our bodies – go up. When loneliness is chronic, it increases the risk of serious illness – heart disease, dementia.”

Book cover for 'The Lonely Century' by author Noreena Hertz.
Book cover for 'The Lonely Century' by author Noreena Hertz.

The effect extends beyond the individual, Hertz argues. Businesses and organisations that encourage their employees to connect, outperform less socially interactive rivals. “There’s fascinating research that suggests firefighters who eat together perform twice as well as those that don’t.”

The idea for the book itself came from Hertz's own personal experience. She graduated from University College London aged only 18 and earned her MBA at the prestigious Wharton School at 21. After a successful career as a financial consultant, she completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge, before moving into broadcasting and writing. But, as The Lonely Century is at pains to emphasise, material success is no protection against loneliness.

Hertz says one of the most miserable periods of her adult life coincided with a high point in her career: working on Russia's economic reform package for the International Finance Corporation.

“I was working with a factory [in Nizhny Novgorod, western Russia] on its privatisation and sleeping on my own in its sanatorium, in this empty ward eating buckwheat multiple times a day. I definitely felt lonely then.” This isolation was exacerbated by technology, or rather a lack of it – at that time, international phone calls took 48 hours to arrange.

These experiences point us towards the book’s biggest question: what exactly is loneliness in 2020? “Traditionally, we think about loneliness as feeling bereft of friendship or company or intimacy. I define it more like [Karl] Marx talked about alienation or [Emile] Durkheim talked about anomie. It’s feeling disconnected from our fellow citizens and our employer. It’s feeling unsupported, not only by those we are meant to be closest to, but by the government and the state.”

Unsurprisingly, such a broad conception has many possible causes, including all the usual suspects: long working hours, increasing migration to urban centres and, of course, the standard 21st century bete noirs of networked technology and social media.

“Our smartphones are a key culprit,” she says. “We are perma-connected yet perma-distracted, present, but all too often feeling alone.”

What can be done to cure this loneliness epidemic? Bold recommendations by Hertz extend from the personal to the political, from the economic to technology. She recommends regulation of social media companies, even going so far as supporting a ban on social media for children under the age of consent.

But if one magic word would cure all our isolated ills, it would be community. And perhaps the best starting point is with ourselves. Hertz makes four suggestions. "One, put down our phones and be present for those around us. Two, make a commitment to nurture our local communities: attend or organise events. Three, smile more and say thank you. Four, think about helping someone in our own network who might be lonely."

These may seem like insignificant gestures, but even the smallest act can help ease loneliness. With so many countries in lockdown for the second time, including Hertz's homeland, the UK, these small acts will be more important than ever. For Hertz, it was reading children's literature that helped her cope the first time around. "The good thing about them is they have happy-ever-after endings, however gruelling the journey."

And this chimes perfectly with her ambition for The Lonely Century. "Some people may think it sounds depressing, but it really isn't. I want this book to be full of ideas and full of hope."