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Is community the cure for our loneliness epidemic?

Posted on 31 January 2018

The Government’s designation of DCMS minister Tracey Crouch as Minister for Loneliness has given a useful boost to the valuable work of the Jo Cox Commission and generated interesting comment at home and abroad.

For some it’s provided a source of quizzical inquiry based on enduring national stereotypes ('with such a stiff upper lip how would the British even know they’re lonely?' asked one US talk show host), while for others it’s a welcome recognition that we need to find a solution to one of the great challenges of modern life – one that cuts across the social scale and age spectrum.

For some, isolation may seem to be a symptom of that other modern disease - affluenza.  Those surfing the waves of a globalised economy – David Goodhart’s now famous 'anywheres' – may have the freedom to make their living and make their home wherever their pay packet takes them but at the same time can end up belonging nowhere.  Millennials - and the marketing world’s newly minted favourites 'Generation Z' - may communicate with each other more than any previous generation but, as one young person remarked to me recently, having visibility of thousands of other people’s lives means nothing if you’re emotionally engaged in none of them.  Even our shopping habits – online stores and self-service tills - mean we can feed, clothe and entertain ourselves without having any interaction with another human being. 

Modern-day loneliness

One of the most telling stories I heard recently was recounted about two Groundwork Green Doctors undertaking home visits to deliver advice on water and energy efficiency.  When their visit was concluded it became so obvious that they were the only people the householder was likely to interact with that day, so they got their sandwiches out of the van and stayed for lunch and a chat.

So what can a minister practically do to remedy this when the issues stem fundamentally from the fact that life has changed - we don’t all work in the same factory, buy our groceries from the same corner shop, socialise in the same pub or visit the same place of worship?  Neither, as many commentators point out, is this appointment likely to signal a shift in the level of investment in our public services.  The fact that the loneliness minister is also the charities minister clearly gives us a clue, but there are dangers here too.  Although no longer in government, the views expressed by the ex-minister for civil society Rob Wilson that the most useful thing for charities to be doing is delivering cut-price public services under contract, are not isolated.

Keeping communities thriving 

The voluntary sector is central to addressing isolation and loneliness, but not just because it can deliver some of the vital services on which the vulnerable depend. GP and MP Phillip Lee caused something of a stir last year when he painted a picture of our 'sick', 'atomised' society dominated by ‘shallow’ social media relationships.  He called for an effort to ‘rebuild communities’ but put the emphasis on families to re-build their relationships rather than rely on outsourced care and companionship from a stretched public sector.  We need to recognise however, that just as the world has changed, so have families and relationships.  When and where we work, how we communicate and the care that some of us need is fundamentally different, to the extent that we won’t crack isolation simply by being more diligent about popping round to see Gran.

The emergence of loneliness as a major social and political issue could be seen as evidence of what a lot of people instinctively feel – that the fabric of community life is fraying.  Although stateside press reports of Ms Crouch’s appointment were met with some bemusement, how much time people are spending together in US communities is a source of study – and concern.  A 2017 Congressional report of the Joint Economic Committee recorded reductions in the amount of time neighbours socialise, how many people trust each other and how much time people are spending volunteering.  It concluded that what needs tackling is 'a diminished sense of belonging to something greater'.

Bringing people together for a common purpose is, of course, the starting point for most charities and it is this support for collective community action that has most to offer in terms of the sector’s response to the loneliness epidemic.  Not only does this help to create and maintain some of the spaces and places where people can interact – the community centre, the youth club, the local park – but the active participation involved helps people build the confidence and social contacts they need to be more resilient and better able to cope in a world that has a tendency to drive us further apart rather than keep us closer together.

So let’s make sure our response to loneliness puts a focus not just on how charities might step in to support public services but also their intrinsic value in strengthening the warp and weft of community life.

Post by Graham Duxbury

Chief Executive, Groundwork