The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

From one of the world’s leading thinkers, The Lonely Century is a wide-ranging and detailed examination of how this rapidly changing world has become the loneliest time in our history.  Noreena Hertz does this by looking at social, political and personal lives in a manner that is bold and confronting in the view she presents.  Ignored, we face a dark future.  A graduate at nineteen and highly qualified, Professor Hertz’s work inspires us to take notice and act.

Already, the situation is dire in some parts of the planet.  In the USA, it is possible to ‘rent a friend’ for $40.00 an hour.  Japanese women over 65 choose prison instead of living alone; this has quadrupled in the last two decades.  A shoplifting offence achieves this.  For many elderly people in the west, television is their main companion.  One of the saddest anecdotes Hertz relates is that of an eighty-year-old Chinese man, in a bus shelter, holding a sign in the hope a family would adopt him.  He died three months later.

Doctors maintain that loneliness is more damaging to health than not exercising, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, alcoholism, and twice as harmful as obesity.  Estimates state that its cost to US Medicare is $7 billion annually.

A sense of community aids in banishing loneliness.  Budget cuts in many countries has meant the loss of the number of youth clubs, libraries and other government funded group activities.  In the UK, half the youth clubs have closed as well as 800 public libraries.  Coming together is part of a civil society so communal infrastructure like parks is essential for the citizens’ wellbeing.

Children as young as seven have experienced loneliness.  So do the young caring for the very old, a homeless man who loses his dog.  The problem even touches communities on Pacific islands.  In today’s world, churches have lost relevance while once they offered a means to engage with others.  For the worker, trade unions no longer attract members as they once did.

An experiment with mice has demonstrated that isolation breeds aggression.  A feeling of isolation or the feeling of being left behind has contributed to the rise of the populist leader.  Today, the average salary of a CEO is 258 times that of the average worker.

Trump cleverly manipulated the sentiment of the people, particularly the poorly paid, who felt abandoned by these captains of industry.  His rallies – over seventy since his election – feature chants, cheering and strategies which unite.

Noreena Hertz believes the causes and consequences of loneliness are right at the heart of the biggest political and social questions our society face.  She urges leaders to find ways to make all their citizens feel they are heard and seen.

This mandate faces a daunting task.

Many large cities have half the populace living alone.  This leads to eating alone.  These days, many supermarkets offer a range of single portion meals – in Korea particularly.

The book’s chapter headed ‘The Contactless Age’ is both fascinating and horrifying.  Amazon Go, already widespread in America, involves contactless shopping.  Cameras record everything.  It is convenient but unsocial.  YouTube offers classes like personal training, yoga and Tai Chi to the solitary in their homes.  In London, there is the Camden bench designed to discourage the homeless stretching out on it.  Other hostile architecture has spikes which emerge from gratings at night to prevent cosy sleeping by the homeless, as well as water sprinklers outside churches.  One American city has mosquito sounds playing in outside areas to deter loitering or sleeping.  Places in Africa have massive rocks placed under bridges with a similar objective in mind.

Most are probably aware of the negative aspects of the ubiquitous mobile phone in promoting friendship and social contact, but experts now realise that it affects children’s language abilities and acquisition of communications skills.  This is a deficiency which could shape a bleak future.

The bibliography of this ground-breaking book is more than a third of its volume which indicates how thorough is her research and solid is the basis of her conclusions.  It emerges that loneliness is an enormous problem which must be addressed.  The reader can make small changes which begin to find the route to a kinder, happier life for those we meet.  Noreena Hertz suggests gestures that we can make towards making us closer to avoiding the twenty-first century being infamous for being the title of this brilliant book.

In a brief review, it is impossible to do justice to this comprehensive, outstanding work, which is accessible to all, important to our society, and essential reading for anyone who cares deeply about our future.  I urge you to acquire a copy.

The Lonely Century

[2020]

by Noreena Hertz

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 1 529 32926 1

$32.99; 394pp

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