The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz review – our need for community

Being alone can be damaging to your health – lessons for No 10 in the era of lockdown and beyond

Hertz explores visions of solitude in The Lonely Century.
Hertz explores visions of solitude in The Lonely Century. Photograph: Martyn Edwards/Alamy Stock Photo

Even when lockdown is over, there are an awful lot of ways to be lonely, according to the economist Noreena Hertz. You could be the warehouse worker under hi-tech company surveillance, risking reprimand for even a trip to the loo, let alone a friendly chat with colleagues. You could be a lower income resident of a housing block for which you are forced to use a separate entrance – known as the “poor door” – to that of your wealthier neighbours. You could be the elderly person who would like to sit and talk, except that your city has installed concrete “Camden benches”, designed to make lingering uncomfortable.

You could be the person who orders almost everything you need online, so that human interactions have started to feel exhausting. You could even be someone who has sought company via one of the eerie methods documented in Hertz’s book The Lonely Century: by paying someone to cuddle you, by living with a robot, or by committing a crime just serious enough to send you to prison – as Hertz reports has become a phenomenon among older Japanese women.

This book is not so much about the emotional ache we call loneliness as it is about the fragmentation of community. Hertz builds a wide-ranging, convincing argument that the way we live now is profoundly atomised – missing many of the casual and deeper human connections that used to be commonplace. We’re not built for isolation. Loneliness is astonishingly damaging to our health – Hertz writes that it triggers a lingering and cumulative stress response in the body, hampering our immune systems, increasing our risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia, and making us almost 30% more likely to die prematurely.

It gets worse. She also cites research that links loneliness – or perhaps more accurately, marginalisation – to the rise of right-wing politics. She interviews Rusty, a locomotive engineer who felt devalued and abandoned by Barack Obama’s Clean Coal Act, and as a result turned to Donald Trump. Far-right politicians surge forwards by listening to disconnected people, offering them a welcoming tribe, then stoking their anger against “outsiders”.

Dehumanising technology, unimaginative city planning and austerity have made us unhappy, unhealthy and hostile. This book is a crucial call to arms: in the wake of the pandemic, Hertz argues, governments have an opportunity to rebuild along better lines. Yet I have little confidence that the British government is thinking about the importance of community. If we could issue a reading list to 10 Downing Street, I’d put this book near the top.

The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart is published by Sceptre (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.