At Paddington station on the way to The Big Tent Ideas Fest on Friday, I got a little flustered. Bank card in one hand, phone attached to wiry headphones in the other, I felt a pang of anxiety as, with the train to Twyford due to depart imminently, the machine buzzed and counted down to a “transaction failed” message.
Eventually, I made the train. But my agitation got me thinking – that in our capitalist, consumerist society, dominated by technology and products and things that are supposed to make life more efficient, we’ve somehow forgotten what’s important. All morning, while I’d been on a bus, passed through a station with hundreds of people, collected a ticket and sat on a train, I’d yet to speak to a single person.
That’s the norm for many of us day to day. Amid the economics of big business, big government and big charity, we now buy our coffee from machines and pay for groceries at self service check outs. Many people tap their travel cards to a disc without looking up from their phones to say hello or thank you to the driver. Music, that most sharable of sounds, is consumed in solitude through headphones. Our interaction with our banks, our councils, our taxi drivers, occur through apps and automated mazes: press one to listen to Greensleeves, press two to be put through to someone on the other side of the planet, press three to be entered into a telephonic abyss.
So much of the ‘progress’ of technology and speed in this political economy has conversely eliminated so much of what makes us human: that instinct for play, humour, personality, even silliness and flirtation, and ultimately connection with others.
The phenomenon is everywhere. Somehow, the word “social” has come to mean sending a tweet or posting on Instagram; or it’s an all too remote service of government – social security, social services, social care, social housing. But truly being social actually requires us not only to save time, but to spend it, invest it, even suspend it – through pause, reflection and interaction with others.
The reduction of that human interaction in our everyday lives is killing us. Loneliness is as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It brings on strokes, heart attacks, dementia and premature death.
1 million people over the age of 65 in the UK feel chronically lonely most or all of the time. 17% see friends or family less than once a month; 11% less than once a week. Young people between 21 and 35 are the second loneliest age group. At 35, men feel more isolated than at any other time in their lives and suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. One in five young mothers feels lonely “always”. And one in four girls are depressed by the time they turn 14.
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It’s narrowing our shared experience with, and understanding of, one another too. The generations are dividing. Communities that live side by side too infrequently interact, leading to the type of political divergences so evident in the national and international elections of the past three years. Trust in institutions – former pillars of society, from the media to the trade unions to faith groups to charities – is eroding. And our public services are creaking: one in ten GP appointments is taken up by an older person with no other condition than that they’re lonely.
This disconnection in our connected age is the result of a number of complex, layered factors. Globalisation, gentrification, migration, digitisation and a chronic lack of housing have all sped up transience and transformed communities faster than ever before, leaving people feeling left out or left behind.
The things that matter to people are less accessible to the majority. Chasing abstract growth over sustainable meaning has created a situation in which work is plentiful but casual and livelihoods insecure. Football clubs have commodified their value built on community and sold it at a high price to fans on the other side of the world, leaving many feeling locked out. Music is more ubiquitous than ever but the subsequent business model has made the format disposable and limited its creation to a smaller pool than ever. The fourth industrial revolution has already partially occurred, and we haven’t yet figured out how to govern our lives or our society in a way that meets that drastic change.
So we need new ideas, and a new focus not just on making life liveable or efficient, but on making life worth living – richer for the majority and more grounded in community and relationships.
That new approach needs to be consistent across the whole of government and civil society. My co-speaker at the first session at The Big Tent Ideas Fest on Friday, John Roberts, who talked inspiringly about his work providing spaces for young people to connect, said government needs to spend its money more efficiently. I don’t disagree with the premise, but I disagree with the phrasing. Government, conversely, needs more inefficiency – a rejection of the quick fix in favour of a longer view of how to meet our fundamental collective objectives.
Welfare needs reform, but in a slow, outcomes based way – or, to paraphrase the brilliant John Bird, founder of The Big Issue who also spoke at Big Tent Ideas, it needs to dismantle the poverty of income, opportunity and connection by investing in prevention rather than merely cure. We need a Connecting State that moves away from payments for everyone with children and housing top-ups which further inflate the market in favour of a state which helps people to build networks that make them resilient rather than reliant.
We need an education system and national curriculum that doesn’t just teach algebra and trigonometry and Shakespeare and games once a week, but that teaches people how to build networks, how to manage their physical and mental health through positive relationships and regular exercise, and how to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks.
As George McBride from VolteFace said on Friday, we need a criminal justice approach that doesn’t spend billions making hardened criminals of minor offenders through prison and sentencing systems shown to have failed and which perpetuates addiction or extremism. Instead, we need to help people to rehabilitate by building power in their lives through community and local support networks.
We need the National Health Service to do what it says on the tin – to keep people healthy rather than just treating people when they’re sick – through a wholesale adoption of the culture of prevention. That means expanding social signposting, helping people to stay well for example through subsidised gym memberships, and a massive re-prioritisation of mental health through support for people to connect to their communities and themselves.
On housing, we need to build mixed, ‘sociable’ developments that provide the public space for people to interact. And we need to build in some rootedness too. After a huge new housing investment that, as George Freeman would say, captures the spirit of the Victorian age, councils should retain some stock specifically for people who have been to school in that area, and want to remain part of the fabric of community, to build a family and put down roots. In business, this would be called retention and it’s one of the most important aspects of success – in civic life, it’s called community.
None of this hinges on Brexit. Indeed, if the government thinks it can fix the crisis of disconnection in our connected age merely by negotiating a legal, ‘transactional’ Brexit, it will be severely disappointed and will ultimately fail. Brexit was a symptom, not a cause, of our wider malaise and the fragmenting of communities.
So at this critical juncture in our social, political and economic history, we need imaginative ideas to tackle specific long brewing injustices. As well as recapturing that vanguard Victorian spirit that was on display at The Big Tent Ideas Fest, government should step back, find some of that pause and reflection we all need, and return to the founding principles in Theresa May’s speech on the steps of Number 10 last summer – that ‘mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone’.
Alex Smith is the Founder and CEO of The Cares Family