Snigger at idea of a Minister for Loneliness if you like... but being on your own is no laughing matter
There are just too many people consumed by sadness in our atomised world to ignore anymore, writes Gail Walker
The news that Theresa May has appointed the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, as the world's first ever Minister for Loneliness raised a cynical smile on the lips of many. After all, we've been here before.
Governments - especially when the going gets tough - always reach for some grand gesture and, at the end of it all, make little or no difference to the problem. David Cameron's "Big Society", anyone? Tony Blair's "communitarianism"? John Major's "back to basics"? They all seem faintly ludicrous now. Most people feel that politicians should stick to the concrete - managing the economy, conducting foreign affairs and maintaining public safety - and avoid essentially existential questions about whether we are happy, emotionally satisfied or, indeed, lonely. It's easier to measure whether we are financially better off than to start to worry about the inner life of voters.
And yet we shouldn't race to knock May's initiative, not least because it raises profound questions about who we are and what kind of society we want to live in. Look around you. We are conducting our lives in the midst of millions of people experiencing the agonies - mental, emotional, physical - of being on their own, of being starved of satisfying social contact. Last year's report on loneliness by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, a committee formed in memory of the 41-year-old MP gunned down by an extremist in 2016, claimed that nine million of us feel lonely. That's about one in six of us.
We see it everywhere. Or rather we only half-see it, because we find it troubling and we have neither the time nor inclination to do anything about it. The old man who walks down the street day after day. The middle-aged man in the library. The young mum left at home while the "real" world goes about its business - an act defined, more or less, as making money and, as a nice sidebar, getting an off-the-peg identity. And then there are those, let's be honest, simply born without the social graces, the shy, the awkward, the misfits. In other words, people who never get a chance to talk, because there is no one there to listen to them.
We live in an increasingly harsh and atomised world. We revel in ideas and images of the good old days, of terraced houses and strong communities, places where people not only talked to each other, but provided an emotional support system, regular contact and a comfortable way of living, centred around family, friends and local pride.
It's a world we only see now in the sentimental fantasy spun on Coronation Street or EastEnders. But that is not the reality we have created. On the contrary, we have elevated the individual above the group. Families are increasingly scattered by brute economic necessity throughout the land. Children work not only in different cities than their parents, but different countries and continents. We seem to laud the mobile and the global, and despise the local and parochial. How do we define success? Building careers away from home in some metropolis or other. Remember all those articles about twentysomethings forced to live at home due to the global financial crash - as if there was something profoundly shameful about not moving out of the family home. As if the bare fact of living in - and being dependent upon - an extended family carries with it a life-marring stigma.
We are taught to praise independence and, in contrast, fear dependence. Children are encouraged to move away and parents are encouraged not to stand in their way. This is what "good", "successful" and "happy" people do.
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And moving to what exactly? A solipsistic universe inhabited by ourselves alone. In the near future, over half of us will live in single-person households. Failed marriages and divorce are facts of modern life. We are often alone - alone in our apartments, alone in our bedsits, alone in our des res. Not for us the bustling streets of our parents and grandparents. Sure, many of us know the names of our immediate neighbours, but her two doors down? Forget it. Despite our sentimental yearning for the communal life, we fetishise privacy, admiring ourselves for staying aloof from the messy business of other people's lives and demanding that others treat us with the same distance.
Even in work, there is often a great pressure not to reveal the emotional side of our lives. And even greater pressure not to ask other people about their lives. The parameters of social intercourse feel increasingly patrolled and controlled.
The internet - which is meant to join the whole world together - can cut both ways. Yes, social media can make us feel less lonely. I remember sending out a semaphore from a hospital waiting room at 2am and feeling comforted by the flotilla of small craft that immediately set out across cyberspace to my side.
But social media can also be toxic, little more than a PC echo chamber, full of aggressive voices demanding you think this, or care about that, a world of morally upright souls with all the humanity of plaster saints.
Of course, some of us crave the idea of solitude, but that's a very different premise. Given our 24/7 world of work and social media, it's natural to long for some time out. The clear division between work and leisure is gone - many don't really clock off at 5pm. Shapeless, formless, but everywhere, work and social media interaction can invade every corner of our lives until all we want to do is sit in a darkened room. For some, downtime now isn't about meeting people anymore - it's about getting away from them. But craving an hour or two to ourselves is very different from "being lonely". From listening to the radio from dawn to dusk just to hear another human voice. People for whom the only phone calls are from spammers, or wrong numbers. People whose only texts come from their phone provider offering them another deal. People who hang back to talk to the check-out staff in the supermarket - just to talk. People who talk to themselves all day every day, running commentaries on what they're doing, little pep talks to keep going.
Indeed, 50% of people over 65 say that it can take weeks before they talk to anybody. Is it any wonder that we - especially, but not exclusively, the elderly - feel that life is, material wealth or no, becoming a rather solitary. We have fewer opportunities for emotional interaction more significant than the rituals of "hello" or "good morning". We're encouraged to shop online, bank online, chat online. This isn't healthy. We are social animals, needing contact as much as food, heat, or shelter. The evidence is overwhelming: loneliness is a contributory factor to ill-health, high blood pressure, Alzheimer's and dementia and, most tellingly, depression.
The epidemic of loneliness isn't some act of God. It's a reflection of the society we - all of us - have created. But society can be changed by a thousand and one small things. Maybe there should be less praise for the idea of the self and more for considering the needs of others.
Or more concern to protect and promote extended families - why not a tax-break for families including elderly parents? Perhaps tradespeople could be encouraged to recognise signs of loneliness among the elderly and red flag them? Sneer at the idea of a Minister for Loneliness if you wish, but there is just too much sadness out there to ignore it anymore.