Overcoming society’s problem with loneliness


Examining a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (see here), having a look at the impact of the structure of our economy, and some personal experiences too.

[Updated on 25 Apr 2014 to add: Labour MP Tom Watson used this blogpost to help inform a column piece on loneliness as a public policy issue in The Mirror – see his article here. He even sent a ‘thank you’ tweet!


In the middle of 2013 I blogged about loneliness in response to Stephen Fry – see here. That post is very much a personal journey through something that I’ve felt throughout my adult life, reflected in my inability to connect deeply with anyone. Yet the more I’ve pondered on this, the more I’ve started to realise that loneliness and the lack of meaningful connections with other people is something that lots of other people are affected by – to the extent that it has now become a public policy issue.

What is loneliness?

Until writing this blogpost, I’ve not really thought much about the definition – or how it differs from ‘being alone’. A quick web search says ‘alone’ is a state of being in the company of no one else, while loneliness is a state of mind – an emotional response to the former. The introduction to the report The Lonely Society for the Mental Health Foundation adds more:

“Because our society prides itself on self-reliance, loneliness might carry a stigma for people who admit to it. This is both paradoxical and pernicious: if loneliness is transient, we simply accept it as part of life, but we have a deep dread of being lonely for the long haul.” [p3]

Loneliness as a personal experience, as a local challenge and/or as a social problem

I don’t intend repeating what I mentioned in my earlier blogposts. What I want to do is explore both local and wider social issues, linking them back to my personal experience. My aim is to see what responses can be made by communities, institutions and politicians.

Acknowledging the problem

The first thing you have to do when solving a problem is to acknowledge that it’s there. But how can you do that when there is such a massive stigma attached to it? Remember the people at school who were bullied and isolated for whatever reason – or had their friendship group turn against them? In childhood I was victim and perpetrator over the years – both of which I’m both deeply ashamed of, and in later life I put down to lack of courage on my part in handling. Again, courage (or lack of) was something that plagued my childhood and still affects me to this day.

Community responses to loneliness

How do you even know if loneliness is an issue in your community? In one sense by its very nature, it’s very difficult to reach out to people who are lonely because finding them may not be straight forward. Also, it’s one thing getting a message over to them, it’s quite another thing provoking a positive reaction. Perhaps too there is a stereotype that it’s only proselytising religious people seeking converts who try to reach out to such people.

Reaching out and persuading people to do something is actually very very difficult. Dammit I’ve tried with joining up the various institutional dots in and around Cambridge. Sometimes you have to be the brazen individual/idiot who turns up to absolutely everything just to find out what’s going on and where, making the face-to-face connections.

The thing is, you can’t really ‘brand’ the problem as loneliness and then do stuff on the back of that brand. For example I can’t think posters along the lines of:

“Are YOU lonely? Come and join us for fun and frolicks!!!”

…really having much impact other than lampoonery and laughter at it.

For me, the first question any community group open to anyone could ask is: “Who is missing?” – in terms of which part of the local area they live in seem to be conspicuous by their absence. Local councillors – certainly in and around Cambridge are painfully aware of who is missing as far as local engagement is concerned, but in my opinion lack some of the imagination (as opposed to effort – generally they are a hard-working bunch) to tackle the problems. This is not just a social media issue – rather this for me is a long term community development strategy issue. (Which reminds me – I need to send them an FoI for it because I can’t find it on the web).

Furthermore with community groups, I think there’s something to be said around greater collaboration and co-operation, especially when it comes to publicising events or putting on joint events. Again, it’s not a laziness issue – running community groups or local voluntary organisations (especially when not paid) requires a huge amount of hard work. Hence the importance for me for such groups to have some sort of ‘external challenge’ as well as refreshing memberships/committee positions.

Institutional responses

By institutions, I’m thinking along the lines of organisations that are formally constituted, have working addresses (that are not someone’s home) and have the capacity to make some sort of an impact locally. This is different to responses from community groups because institutions generally tend to have greater funding, greater powers or greater influence – or some combination of the three – compared to community groups.

Some of these responses can be very ‘quick win’ responses – such as supermarkets having community noticeboards at their entrances and exits. Some of it can be in the form of giving community grants, or allowing staff paid time off for particular community actions. The civil service announced such a scheme in 2011 (see here) with a handful of other large employers matching it.

My issue with Cambridge in particular is the lack of co-ordination and organisation across the institutions – hence my repeated demands for a city-council-led community development strategy that covers the city as a geographical area (and beyond the city limits if necessary), rather than a simple strategy for the council as an institution. But that requires more than a little bit of leadership not just from the politicians but those on the boards of large organisations.

One of the reasons I’m going after the institutions is impact. The other is sustainability. Prior to my move to London I did a fair amount of volunteering for a couple of organisations. While in principle I could repeat what I did back then, I don’t feel an incredible desire to do so. I’m not the same person I was ten years ago and neither is the world. Also, much of what I achieved while volunteering was about hard graft ‘at the coal face’ so to speak – covering the work that could/should have been done by more than one person had such other volunteers been around. I don’t have the health or energy for that sort of commitment anymore. In those days it was 10-15 hours per week ***on top of a full time job***. My aim today is to influence institutions so that their co-ordinated impact is greater than the sum of their parts.

The economic/political response

Ultimately there is only so much that a community or local institutional response can deliver. There are economic and political factors at play too. To summarise a few:

Cost of living vs wages/salaries

The issue has been in the news frequently in recent years. For those living on the breadline, this can have a significant impact on people’s ability to take part in community-related activities or even the simple action of meeting up with a friend. The cost of a bus ticket to the cost of a cup of coffee. They add up. Furthermore, low wages may increase pressure for those in such jobs to increase their hours to pay for the essentials, rather than looking after their families, homes or taking part in community activities. People on mortgages too may also be affected – especially if the mortgage requires two salary earners to pay for the mortgage repayments.

Cost of social activities – both in terms of hosting/organising, and what to charge

It relates somewhat to the cost of living, but how much can people afford for what is on offer? The greater the organising cost, the greater the financial risk to the organiser. In Cambridge, there is huge ‘social’ demand for an affordable dancing and music venue. The problem is that this ‘social’ demand can’t ever reflect the ‘commercial’ costs of running such a venue. What do you do when society wants something that badly but at the same time does not have the funds or wealth to be able to make such a venture financially feasible? Pro-free-market types would say well that’s tough. Understandable given their world view. But I’d like to think that humanity can do better than that.


If you are a parent, where do you find the time? I was at a school governors’ meeting – well two actually, earlier on. I have no idea where many of the volunteers find the time given the demands of raising children and their own work demands. I also feel that cost of living pressures are making it harder and harder for individuals to find the time for volunteering

Commuting/ living close to your workplace

This in part is a function of time and of cost of living. One of the impacts of the super-rich buying up properties in our cities (not just London) is the fallout on wider society. (See this article). If people could afford to live closer to their work places, they would spend far less time commuting. Thus they would have more time for their families and communities. But if the international jet-set are allowed by politicians to buy up vast swathes of properties for ‘investment’ purposes rather than for anyone to live in, they cannot complain about the impact this has on their other policies. When I switched from Cambridge to commuting to London in my early Whitehall days, my volunteering went out of the window. When I lived in London I struggled to settle not least because of the expense of going out and about but also because where I lived was such a transient community with no roots.

Transient population – flexible labour markets

It’s something I’ve criticised in a blogpost here. Flexible labour markets have huge and unquantified costs that are not accounted for in traditional economic models. With London, a back-of-the-paper calculation from this Prezi presentation by me comes up with an overall annual churn of London’s population of about 700,000 – or about 10%. (Sum the absolute figures of UK internal movers into and out of London with those moving into and out of London to/from abroad). Although the ‘net change’ is +85,000 people, that’s simply counting numbers, and does not account for any of the people being different. One person moving out and one person moving in gives you a net figure of 0. (Funnily enough this almost matches table 11 on page 20 of this report. (For London in 2008/09, a turnover of 93 people in every 1000)). With turnover, as a city you’ve lost someone with their needs and talents, and have also gained someone with their different needs and talents. When looking at the needs of individuals on a scale measured in thousands, it’s a public policy issue.

Job insecurity and insecurity of tenure

One of the biggest complaints in many a university town or city is the rise of the student ghetto. While I wouldn’t go so far to say Cambridge has entire wards taken up by student housing, the area around the main railway station on my side of town has become incredibly destabilised in recent decades following the construction of commuter flats and student accommodation for both the universities and language schools. Ditto the buying up of family homes which are artificially divided and sub-let to short-term tenants too.

Combine the insecurity of tenure/short-term nature of tenancies with job insecurity. If you are on short-term contracts or zero hours when you’d rather have a permanent job with regular hours, where is the incentive to put roots down and get involved with your local community? What’s the point given that you may not be around the following month? What’s the point if you cannot commit to regular hours because your costs of living demand that you work every hour that is available?

Is there a solution?

Loneliness is a symptom of other things. The solutions are found in how we tackle those ‘other things’ – some (but not all) of which I covered in this blogpost. If we take the responses generally as:

  • Personal – how individuals choose to deal with it
  • Community – how groups of people, however organised, choose to deal with it
  • Local institutional – how local institutions come together to deal with it
  • Cultural – raising awareness within society & changing mindsets
  • Political and economic – changing the system

…then we might have a chance of making a positive impact.

It’s worth looking at the infographics from the JRF here. While many of the issues that people cited in the research generally fall under ‘personal’, there are other issues that are public policy ones. The lack of community and youth facilities is one. Poverty is another. Family breakdown and separation also come up under several different responses – something that is incredibly difficult to deal with as far as public policy is concerned.

What if we do nothing?

I was reminded of the first series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror films (See here) – and in particular the one titled 15 million merits. (“Charlie, what the f**k were you on when you came up with that one!??!”)

Basically a life where the only place we have to return to after our day in mind-numbingly dull low-paid occupations is being imprisoned by reality TV, sitting in rabbit-hutch-style futuristic windowless rooms. A vision of the future? Maybe – but not one I want to be part of.

Perhaps it’s that fear of what the future might become, or the fear of complete loneliness in older age that drives me. Think of the house-bound people who have care services in their home, where the only people who they get to talk to are the hard-pressed care workers on exploitative contracts. Such an existence to me seems soul-destroying, and it’s heartbreaking that a) so many people seem to lead such an existence and b) that for whatever reason we cannot do anything about it – so it would seem.

In the same way when I moved back to Cambridge following a few years living in London, I found myself in a city where I had no real social network. For my final 18 months in the civil service I found myself living to work – with very little outside because of the exhaustion of commuting 3+ hours a day every weekday. One of the reasons I left the civil service was because I couldn’t cope with the loneliness of my existence outside of work, along with what would have been at least three years of job uncertainty inside of it. Something had to give. Something had to change.

And if we’re going to tackle loneliness as a public policy issue, somethings indeed do have to change. Big time.

[Updated to add]

It’s worth noting the alarming statistic about male suicides – see here, as well as the work being done by the charity CALM (See here).


5 thoughts on “Overcoming society’s problem with loneliness

  1. You mentioned time – one of the things we all need for meaningful connection is more time just doing nothing in particular with people we like! No matter how many connections we make, it takes a good deal of time dawdling and joking around to have meaningful relationships with others – not doing sets of organised activities or talking on facebook. Time together is hard to find when you work long hours/live in London or commute! Not surprising that loneliness and isolation are on the increase and probably the false comfort of superficial networks? You cant feel meaningfully connected to others without spending time with them.

    Another thought is that pop-media doesnt really help things either – as with so many other aspects of life it tends to create reflections of life that are close enough to reality to leave people in a state of slight dissatisfaction. So – watching less TV and spending more time with a few people you actually like? Could that be part of the answer 🙂 I guess it is different for all.

    Thanks for this thoughtful blog.

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