Loneliness in modern society
Wondering how to frame this piece, how to marshal the argument that I want to make – that we are in danger of becoming fragmented, collectively and individually – I implemented the strategy that I usually adopt in such circumstances. I went to the cafe that lies halfway between our flat and Brighton pier, bought a cup of tea, and sat and looked out at the sea.
Between the cafe and the ocean is Madeira Drive, lined with benches, and dotted with holiday-makers that morning in late summer. On the bench directly in front of me sat a man, iPod earplugs inserted, swig- ging from a maxi-sized bottle of coke, and, in between gulps, bellowing the words of whatever song he was listening to.
At first he seemed harmless, possibly even amusing – this town doesn’t lack eccentrics. As the minutes passed, however, and his shout- ing escalated into loud shrieks of fury, and pedestrians made ever larger swerves to avoid him, the true state of his isolation, and of his madness, became clear.
This vision of Britain’s future – anonymous solitude, punctuated by great shouts of impotent fury – is the one that worries me the most. Is it plausible? And how might it be avoided?
The day before you came
The shortest average time for two people to find one another, if they become separated in, say, a supermarket (think of all those times you leave your partner fussing over a choice of onions, with a curt “I’m going for the cat food”, only to return and find him gone, because even Waitrose’s allium selection isn’t inexhaustibly fascinating), is for both of them to keep moving. Not systematically (“I’ll check the meat aisle first”), but at random.
This works everywhere, not just in supermarkets. Remember the time before you met your other half, when ‘checking out’ had both a more salacious and a more important meaning than the act of paying for onions. How did you meet?
It won’t feel as though it happened at random (“We worked to- gether”; “Her brother was in my football team”; “I looked up from the swimming pool and he was there”) and to suggest that it did will offend the owners of all those online dating services, who take your money to find your ‘match’; but whether you subscribe to such algorithmic approaches to mate-finding, or prefer the more romantic concept of Plato’s Other Half, your meeting was, at heart, a random fact of a coldly indifferent Universe.
We’re like grains of salt in a souvenir of Blackpool Tower. The best hope for two grains to bump into one another is for the vessel which contains them to be given a good shake. So why, when there are more grains of salt in the UK than ever, are more of us living alone? The Guardian recently quoted a Euromonitor survey which claimed more than one-third of British households are occupied by one person. [Eric Klinenberg, “I want to be alone: the rise and rise of solo living”, The Guardian, March 30, 2012.]
The number of UK citizens living alone from 2001 to 2011 remained fairly constant over the decade, even allowing for the increase in pop- ulation size. But for those in middle-age, between 45 and 64, there has been a sharp rise, of 36%.[Office for National Statistics, “Statistical bulletin: Families and households, 2001 to 2011: living alone”, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/family-demography/families-and-households/2011/stb-famil- ies-households.html#tab-Living-alone.] As the ONS says: “The increase in those living alone also coincides with a decrease in the percentage of those in this age group who are married (from 77 per cent in 2001 to 70 per cent in 2011), and a rise in the percentage of those aged 45 to 64 who have never married, or are divorced (from 18 per cent in 2001 to 27 per cent in 2011).” More people don’t marry, and more marriages end in divorce.
So what? Maybe all these people prefer to live alone. The author Colm Toibin is quoted in the same Guardian article, positively eulogising his single state, likening his existence to that of a cloistered nun (a terrify- ing image; possibly why his novels simultaneously grip and appall). And most young people will want some time alone, to grow into their adult selves, not that they have much chance to do so, considering the rise in house prices – but that’s for other chapters in this very book.
Most people aren’t Colm Toibin. Epidemiological evidence suggests that living alone can be a predictor of poorer psychological outcomes: one paper found a dramatic increase in the receipt of antidepressants among the solitary, with respect to their unsolitary controls.[Laura Pulkki-Råback et al, “Living alone and antidepressant medication use: a prospective study in a working-age population”, BMC Public Health 12:236 (2012)] People who live alone are at greater risk of ill-health, and the life choices which lead to it.
Culture reflects the reality of its human substrate; so is it a coincid- ence that a rise in solitary living is contemporaneous with new ways of working, new ways of interacting? Fewer factories and more home of- fices; fewer water-cooler moments with people you actually know and more virtual tweeting between strangers.
To be honest, I don’t think you need statistical evidence to make the case that solitude, and its consequence, loneliness, are increasingly common characteristics of modern life. Just open your eyes the next time you’re in a coffee shop. Watch for the people who work hard to protect their fragile dignity, whose every sip is measured and precise. They never spill their coffee: they have enough attention to spare to make sure the cup is always returned to its saucer with care. They are stopped: not moving at random; barely moving at all.
Few such people end up on a bench in Brighton, screaming their anger and pain at the sky. But loneliness, the gap between people, is the great undiscussed topic of the age. Its precursors – the rise of the broken home, the decline of those industries which defined the towns which housed their factories, the increased level of immigration – are politically important and deserve attention; but we forget, sometimes, that it’s the consequence of those phenomena that really matter.
Will you still love me tomorrow?
The primary institution which acts as a bulwark against middle-aged solitude is marriage; one way to support marriage is to increase the proportion of the population we permit to join that institution.
So it is right that Conservatives should support the extension of state marriage to gay people. It is a perversion of Toryism to shut people out from the institution that most strongly supports the conservative value of inter-reliance between adults.
“It is a perversion of Toryism to shut people out from the institution that most strongly supports the conservative value of inter-reliance between adults”
But gay people represent only a small proportion of potential UK couples. The biggest impact of policy on outcomes will be that which affects the heterosexual majority. It therefore beggars belief that there still exists a ‘couple penalty’ in the benefits system: the financial cost (in terms of lost benefits) to setting up a household with your partner. The Centre for Social Justice calculated the extent of this penalty in a 2009 report which, among other important findings, showed that the group of people who faced the largest financial impact for living together were among the lowest earners. [Centre for Social Justice, Dynamic benefits (London: CSJ, 2009).]
My own instinct is that the most efficient way to persuade people to provide the stable relationships that they and their children require is to encourage marriage, for which reason I support the reintroduction of the transferable tax allowance. But the impact of this would most help middle-income families. It is the penalisation of stability through the couple penalty in the benefits system that matters most, because it affects those most in need of support: the lowest earners, and their children.
This topic wouldn’t even be on the agenda without the pioneering anti-poverty work of Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Sec- retary. His Universal Credit will begin to unwind this insidious penalty on stable relationships. The challenge for the next Tory administra- tion will be take that work further. Parents who work and live together should never be worse-off than those who don’t work and who choose to live apart. When we tolerate a system that effectively taxes the poor for living together, why be surprised at the result? In South Hackney, a very deprived borough, nearly half the children live in one-parent households. [Office for National Statistics, “FOI request: Lone parent families with dependent children by parliamentary constituency”, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/about-ons/what-we-do/FOI/foi-requests/ people-and-places/lone-parent-families-with-dependent-children-by-constituency/index.html.] There are consequences of this for those children’s life chances – but the most immediate effect is to increase that pool of people who have to manage life alone.
Unity through (democratic) divisions
If the quantity of loneliness is a function of “the gap between people”, as I said, then it’s worth contemplating what has exacerbated such distance at the community level. Possibly the most egregious example of this is identity politics, which has displaced socialism as the defining approach of Britain’s Left to problems of community. Groups of people are defined on the basis of arbitrary characteristics (gender, race, religion etc), the ‘needs’ of those groups are investigated, and policies are devised to meet those needs. The intended result is happiness, aka ‘cohesion’.
“If you tell someone that they do not belong to a particular group of humanity, and then instigate policies tailor-made to that group, do not be surprised if the excluded person begins to feel resentment”
The actual result is increased atomisation. The Ritchie report into the 2001 Oldham riots found chilling evidence of the deep-seated segrega- tion between religious ‘communities’ in the town. The report found that “Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and whites simply do not meet one another to any significant degree, and this has led to ignorance, misunderstand- ing and fear.” [Oldham Independent Review, “Panel report”, http://resources.cohesioninstitute.org.uk/Publica- tions/Documents/Document/DownloadDocumentsFile.aspx?recordId=97&file=PDFversion.] Well, of course it did. Of course it did. It’s integration that’s required, not ‘cohesion’ (which means tolerating one another, without rioting, but without mixing either).
If you tell someone that they do not belong to a particular group of humanity, and then instigate policies tailor-made for that group, do not be surprised if the excluded person begins to feel resentment. Do not be surprised, either, if such a person extends his resentment to every member of the group from which he has been excluded. How do you think the white applicants from Gloucestershire felt when they were rejected for interview with their constabulary, because they didn’t fit a predetermined, and irrelevant, ethnic quota? Better disposed towards their non-white neighbours? [BBC News, “Force admits rejecting white men”, BBC News, September 22, 2006, (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/gloucestershire/5369876.stm)]
Two problems here. One is the arbitrary way in which identity groupings are defined – arbitrary because every human being possesses an infinite number of characteristics. The bigger issue is that identity politics doesn’t even work as a political methodology, because it intern- alises, and thus reinforces, such a very reduced sense of self: “I am gay”, or “I am Muslim”, or “I am black”. If that is the most important thing about you, and I am not that thing, then how can we come together?
Tory politics should be about externalisation, about facing outwards. You have needs, and so do I. They’re mostly independent of the Left’s list of protected categories. “I am gay and I want to feel safe on the bus at night-time.” “I am Muslim and … oh hang on. I also want to feel safe on the bus at night-time.” “I am black and … look, what does the gay/ Muslim/black bit have to do with it? We all want to feel safe on the bus at night.”
The voluntary wings of our political parties are often maligned as being so last century. But if you want a good example of a group which, according to identity politics, should view itself as a seething mass of competing interests, but which has sublimated these in search of a common goal, then spend an evening canvassing with Bethnal Green’s Conservatives. You’ll find every race, religion, gender, orientation and age cohort, working together. You don’t have to invest the lyrics of ‘Ima- gine’ with the status of dogma. There is a practicable, Tory solution to a society too often fractured along its religious and ethnic lines.
Such conglomerations of common interest are the best alternative to identity politics: they act to draw diverse people together, rather than reinforcing their surface differences. That London, in our lifetime a left-leaning city, ‘gets’ this, was demonstrated at the last Mayoral elec- tion, with the defeat of perhaps the most calculating practitioner of identity politics in post-war Britain.
“If you want a good example of a group which, according to identity politics, should view itself as a seething mass of competing interests, but which has sublimated these in search of a common goal, then spend an evening can- vassing with Bethnal Green’s Conservatives”
But outward-looking communities of interest won’t occur spontan- eously: another Tory solution is required to encourage such behaviour. We need to shake up those salt-grains, to make it worthwhile for people to join together with neighbours to fight for those common goals. In other words, increase the number of decision-making positions that are filled through election.
This is underway: Police Commissioners were elected in November 2012. Despite the disappointing turnout, and the predictable com- plaints about ‘politicisation’ of the police service (as though Ian Blair, to pick an example, was unpolitical), Conservatives should ignore the de- mands for positions of responsibility to be ‘above politics’ – everything is political, not merely the personal. That our system isn’t perfect, that candidate selection is crying out for reform – open primaries, every- where, now, please – should not blind us to the fact that the alternat- ive of a public test of a theory’s support, whether that theory relates to police priorities, education provision or health, is the imposition of one such theory by unelected, hidden officials. Forcing elections for the decision-making class is the only way to drag them into the light of day.
And there is that (mostly intended) consequence, the one our frac- tured society needs. In Bethnal Green, whether you’re a Muslim incomer from Bangladesh, a pensioner who can remember the borough before the Blitz, an Orthodox Jew in next-door Hackney, or even a gay bloke who lived there because it was sort-of funky, central and affordable: the best chance to bring you together is to confront a common problem.
Leave the identity politics to Labour, obsessed with whether you’re Bangladeshi, White-British, Orthodox Jewish, or whatever. The Tory solution for the mistrust we have fostered between people is to say: isn’t it more important that we sort out the bus routes in the borough? Elect the guy in charge of transport policy, and watch as the inevitable com- petition to win that election aligns people who might otherwise pass a lifetime without being aware of just how much they’ve got in common with the folks who live next door. The ones they usually avoid.
I mentioned those online dating services, and their rise is one of the aspects that marks our age as different to that which went before it. If you factor in the galaxy of social media – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on – and remember that newspapers now permit conversations to occur in a running commentary, underneath nearly every article, then the optimist will say: “chill, Archer”. So, maybe more people do live alone, maybe more marriages do fail, but we’re more connectable than we’ve ever been before.
Which is of course true, and generally all to the good. Greater ease of communication is one of the engines for the conglomeration of common interests we’ve been discussing. But there’s a rotten fly in the ointment that Tories are well-placed to address, one that’s a world away from the use of Facebook to keep in contact with a diasporic family or to bring people together to save their local post office: that of internet anonymity.
Read the comments underneath newspaper columns. In among those people who are attempting to hold a civilized conversation there will almost always be a plethora of vile abuse. Sometimes it’s about the writer, sometimes the target is another commenter, but nearly always you will find the worst offenders of taste are from anonymous, or pseudonymous, posters.
“Words, and this is too often forgotten, are real creatures in the Universe. They’re capable of wounding (“Sticks and stones…” is the biggest parental lie)”
Who cares about newspaper writers? But what about teachers hounded by anonymous online bullies? Or the trolling of sites set up to com- memorate the recently deceased?
There’s a lot of drivel written about this anonymity, excuses along the lines of “I have such an important job, I couldn’t possibly comment under my real name”. Don’t comment then; or change your job.
Words, and this is too often forgotten, are real creatures in the Uni- verse. They’re capable of wounding (“Sticks and stones…” is the biggest parental lie). At the very least, the creator of those words must take per- sonal responsibility for them. To insist on this is not to act against free speech; it’s to make the very reasonable, very Tory, demand that people take responsibility for their actions.
That this basic concept has been lost can be seen on the witless, confused faces of those arrested for making some disgusting com- ment or other about a celebrity on Twitter. “It was just a drunken tweet”, the celebrity involved should “man up” and “grow a pair”, are the inevitable, vulgar responses of the defenders of anonymity. People who would never be rude to someone’s face indulge their bad habit online. Their personality has been fractured, between their anonymous online identity and their real one; and we wonder why public discourse is coarsening. Recognition of this is one reason that Lord MacAlpine’s ongoing legal pursuit of those who used Twitter to spread gossip is so popular: individuals are going to be held to account for their actions.
As the party of personal responsibility, Tories should work with service providers to end the scandal of virtual anonymity. Preferably without a law: decent behaviour is perfectly ‘nudgable’.
No-one should be permitted to contribute to a public discussion without at all times being identified as the individual they are. Legal protection for whistleblowers would be a cheap price to pay. Fractured virtual identities do not support the integration of individuals into their real society, and Tories should act against them.
The Tory swimming-pool
I’ve outlined some data that hints at the atomised, lonely life too many of us face, the consequences of unwanted solitude, and the importance of supporting marriage. I’ve discussed the failings of the Left to bring us together through identity politics, and the potential dangers of social me- dia as a replacement for traditional interactions, and how we might use the mechanism of increased elections to create spontaneous communit- ies of interest. How does this fit together as a Tory vision for the future?
Because we can’t go back, and even if we could return to some golden age, we’d like as not find it imperfect. In my life with Keith, we have a running joke. I’m so oddly out of joint with the time I live in, I often say how much I’d like to live in the 1950s. You know: politeness on buses. Slow-moving traffic. Hats.
“Really?” asks Keith, eyebrow raised. “You think we’d be living like this? Even in Brighton?”
He’s right, of course. He’s always right, even about onions. So what sort of country are we trying to build? Where do you strike the balance between anarchic individualism, and stultifying conformity? Time for a swim.
Swimming is a good model for a Tory society because it’s usually simul- taneously individual – the stroke you choose is up to you – and collective – no one can swim as though they have the entire pool to themselves. If a handful of selfish individuals are tolerated, everyone’s swim will suffer.
More encouragingly, it doesn’t take much to make a swimming pool content: lanes to allow different average speeds, with the freedom to move between them as appropriate. Lifeguards to intervene in case of life-threatening occurrences, and if only we could elect the lifeguard, and the system for pool-policing he favours, so much the better.
But the real rules that make a good pool are those we bring ourselves. The mornings I speak to the neighbours in my lane – after you, no, you go first, oh thanks – are the mornings of the best swims. Simple human de- cency, born of non-anonymous interactions. We are unconcerned with the gender or religion of the other swimmer (there’s only one pool, not separ- ate ones for each religious or other ‘identity’), because we’ve come together with the same goal. And something almost mystical happens: caring for your immediate neighbour, the one you can reach out and touch, results in increased levels of contentment across the entire community of interest.
Why does any of this matter? Because, outside of supermarkets, couples will rarely check out together. About half of us, even if blessed with marriage, know that one day we’ll wake up alone.
No politics can change that. But we can devise policies that encourage individuals to sublimate themselves in the everyday causes that matter the most, to come together with their nearby swimmers – their neighbours – and to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. To do something more worthwhile than to sit alone on a bench, shouting angrily at the sea.
Graeme Archer writes about politics and life in a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph, as well as contributing to its rolling blog. He’s done so since winning the Orwell Prize for political blogging in May 2011, which he was awarded for his contributions to ConservativeHome. He has a PhD in Statistics, which is useful for his day job in pharmaceutical R&D; most of his non-journalistic writing is about the methodology for, and results of, clinical research in psychiatric disorders. He and his partner spend as much of their lives in Brighton as possible.