What is the most isolated society

Economist: "We live more and more isolated"

For more than a year, the corona pandemic has made social exchange, meetings and events more difficult. It is therefore not surprising that many people feel more isolated and lonely as a result. The trend towards more social loneliness began many years before Corona, says the British economist Noreena Hertz, who recently published the book "The Age of Solitude", in an interview with STANDARD.

Even before the pandemic, two-thirds of Austrians said in surveys that they are afraid of loneliness, two-thirds of all Germans also said that loneliness was a serious problem, and one in five millennials in the US said they didn't have a single friend says Hertz. Is loneliness really such a big problem? What role do cities and religion play in this? And can robots and "rented" friends alleviate loneliness in the future? We presented the expert with nine theses.

Thesis 1: Our society is becoming more and more lonely.

Hertz: We are already living more isolated in many areas: We do less with others than in the past, we are less part of trade unions, we live more alone than together, we communicate more virtually than in person, order online and do yoga lessons on Zoom. These are all trends that began before the pandemic and have intensified since then. Today we are also more separated from one another on a social level: Political attitudes have become polarized, and trust in other citizens has also declined in many countries over the past ten years.

This loneliness can sometimes lead to health problems: Statistically, loneliness is about as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Thesis 2: Social media connect people and can thereby reduce our loneliness.

Hertz: There are many people for whom social media provides a community and the opportunity to network with others with whom they might otherwise never have networked. If you are the LGTBQ child who lives in a small village, completely isolated from other people with the same orientation, it is very possible that you can find your community on Facebook. Even in times of the pandemic, social media play a positive role.

But on the basis of many scientific studies it has been shown that overall social media tend to separate people rather than connect them. On the one hand, because the platforms are deliberately made in such a way that they can be addictive and many people there seek confirmation and become addicted to attention. On the other hand, because as a result, many people meet less often and are often less present at meetings. In addition, many people feel left out on social media. This is particularly true of young people. Technology can also help widen political and social divisions, making more and more people feel isolated.

Thesis 3: A digital friendship can long since replace a "real" friendship.

Hertz: Digital communication can certainly not replace real communication. We only see a part of each other, we lack the sense of smell, we cannot look each other in the eye, the transmission causes a delay in the way we connect with each other. We know from numerous studies that these relationships are qualitatively worse than "real" relationships.

Thesis 4: Many are afraid of being alone.

Hertz: It is important to distinguish between loneliness and being alone. If you choose to be alone, it is an active and conscious decision. I myself enjoy doing things by myself. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a desire to be connected, to be seen and heard, that is not fulfilled.

Thesis 5: In the future, robots and machines will replace those who feel lonely due to a lack of human contact.

Hertz: Many people already feel connected to certain objects, for example when one thinks of the affection that many people have for their cars or for language programs like Alexa. Surveys of younger people in Western societies show that many could actually imagine making friends with a machine or a robot. Especially when robots become more and more intelligent, they will become friends and companions for more and more people. The advantage: robots can give comfort to people who feel very isolated. They are also less able to discriminate in who they show their affection to than humans might.

My fear is that these human-machine relationships could increasingly replace human relationships. Because relationships with a machine require a lot less effort from us. They are not based on reciprocity or courtesy. If we keep moving our relationships there, we risk losing those skills over time. We make it a little too easy for ourselves, because interpersonal friendship also means being able to deal with the more difficult aspects of another person.

Thesis 6: When people are lonely, they will simply be able to hire "friends" in the future.

Hertz: I tried to find out for myself what it is like to hire a girlfriend for a day. I found her on a website that "offered" more than 600,000 friends. As with robot friendship, it is the simple form of relationship: Because friends you rent are paid to laugh at each other's jokes, to listen to you, to show interest.

When I asked my rented friend who her customers were, she told me they were mostly 30- to 40-year-old men who worked in technology or finance and had little time to make friends outside of their jobs. It is a good thing that some people have someone because of this. But as a society as a whole, we risk replacing all relationships with transactions.

Thesis 7: Increasing urbanization will make us even more lonely in the future.

Hertz: It is a special form of solitude associated with city life. Many people "flee" from the country in order to have a more anonymous life and more privacy in the city. This privacy has many advantages, but also disadvantages: We know less about our neighbors and know fewer people in the immediate vicinity.

Cities are faster than the country. That already affects people's walking speed. There are studies that show: the richer a city is, the faster its inhabitants move. It seems logical that the residents therefore feel less connected. It can also be that in cities we are simply overwhelmed by the number of people we meet every day, so that it is easier to switch off completely.

Thesis 8: If the church and faith had a higher priority again, loneliness would also be less.

Hertz: The falling numbers of Church members is surely a factor that affects how lonely people feel. Various studies have shown that people in religious communities tend to feel more connected.

The challenge, however, is not how we can bring more people back into the church, but how we create the "cathedrals" of the 21st century. We need to think about how to create shared experiences between people so that people connect with each other through joint activities. Churches are just one way of making these connections.

Thesis 9: In the end, everyone is responsible for how lonely they feel.

Hertz: Of course, it is up to everyone to do something about loneliness: We can consciously put our cell phones aside more often, be more present with others, seek out daily encounters and take the time we need for them.

But loneliness is above all a social problem for which there are systemic solutions. We need more places where people can meet, such as public libraries, parks, clubs, day care for the elderly - places that have been underfunded since the 2008 financial crisis.

The state could support small shops and caf├ęs more, for example offering a tax break to those shops that can be shown to do something for the local community and thus also revitalize the city centers. Companies can create safe meeting areas in which employees can exchange ideas and meet despite the pandemic. (Jakob Pallinger, May 3, 2021)

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