Britain has a new minister for loneliness. The minister, Tracey Crouch, sees her role as a "generational challenge" since feelings of loneliness affect an estimated nine million British people, about one in seven of the population, young and old. It's a worldwide problem – family breakdowns, relentlessly pursuing careers, bereavement and an ageing population all play a part. If 21st century governments see their role as encouraging citizens to find happiness, then addressing loneliness is one of the major challenges of our times.
Something which recently happened in the west of Ireland might prove helpful in that struggle. A local postman in a remote rural area has just retired. The man was much-loved by the 400 or so families on his postal route and a party was held in his honour. Many of those for whom he has been a friendly face every morning gave him gifts. The postman thanked everyone for their friendship and hospitality while on his rounds in all weathers. He said he was always offered a cup of tea and the possibility of a chat by a warm fire. But the postman added that he usually only accepted the offer of tea from those who lived alone and seemed lonely. What a wonderful person he must be. Now that he has retired, perhaps his successor will follow his example, by sticking not just to his job description but by fulfilling a wider role in the community. It is the very definition of public service at a time when those who work in that frontline are constantly told that private businesses create wealth. The implication is that the public sector is a drain on the economy. It isn’t. Private businesses do indeed create wealth. But as we have seen with the enormous bank bailouts during the financial crisis, private businesses can also destroy wealth. Without well-run public institutions to keep us safe and healthy, teach the young and enforce the law, the private sector could not possibly thrive.
The story of the Irish postman was told to me on the same day as a deliveryman for a large privately owned commercial company rang my doorbell. The man was delivering a parcel and at first refused to give it to me.
“Sorry,” the deliveryman said. “We have to wait one minute before you can sign for it.”
It turned out that the deliveryman’s job is run by a computer which estimates how much time each run in his van should take. If he arrives a few minutes early – as he did at my home – the computer will not let the customer sign for the delivery until the appointed time. So we had a short conversation until the computer said yes, then I signed for the parcel and he left.
Read more from Gavin Esler:
In business terms, this delivery company is doing the right thing. The business phrase is "maximising shareholder value". It means that running the company's deliveries minute by minute will maximise efficiency and profit. But treating employees like human robots destroys our common humanity. The driver could not stay for a chat because his online boss was nagging him not to be late for the next delivery. The Irish postman, in comparison, was probably a business disaster. There is no profit in paying a postman to have a cup of tea with an elderly farmer's widow in her country kitchen. A postman is paid to deliver the mail, not to act as a social service for the lonely. If everything in our lives is calculated only to "maximise shareholder value", then business sense says dismiss the postman and replace him with a delivery driver programmed like a robot. In a few years' time, human delivery drivers will undoubtedly find themselves replaced by real robots, whereas what the Irish postman did every day is irreplaceable. What has taken the place of friendliness and community is the insincere and phoney friendship of business calls. A woman from the mobile phone company I use called me recently to sell me a new product and began by asking: "How is your day?" Does anyone believe she really cares? She is reading a prepared script, which has turned her into a speaking but dehumanised automaton.
And so here is a suggestion for those concerned by loneliness. If it is a problem so significant that it requires action from a new government minister, perhaps governments should re-consider the value of public services. Shouldn’t we talk more positively about the humanity of teachers, healthcare workers, the police, postal workers, local council and central government workers? Shouldn’t we celebrate those private businesses – and there are many – which see making a profit as the core of what they do but which go on to contribute greatly to the public good in many other ways, including by being decent and caring employers? And shouldn’t we expose employers who treat human workers like robots? The Irish postman should be celebrated. He is a modern hero for doing his job while also combating loneliness – one cup of tea at a time.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author