Our co-Founder and Chair of our Programme Advisory Group Paul Cann reviews our recent Loneliness: The Big Picture event, and previews our international loneliness Conference on Thursday 18 November 2021. 

Loneliness is often shaped by wider societal forces

Last week the Campaign to End Loneliness launched its ‘Big Picture’ conference, Loneliness Beyond Covid-19,  taking place tomorrow Thursday 18 November  with a burst of energy from three brilliant writers.  Chaired by the prolific commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown we heard how that universal heartache of loneliness is often shaped by wider societal forces.

Noreena Hertz (author of ‘The Lonely Century’)  portrayed devastating forces around us which increase insecurity, alienation and loneliness.  Whether through a contactless culture of interaction, our slippery foothold in a gig economy, our smartphone addiction (“weapons of mass distraction”), or our isolation in the “new” workplaces, we may be ‘together’ physically in a place or digitally in a ‘community’, but we often feel desolately alone.

Jon Yates (‘Fractured’) continued the theme of atomisation, pointing to our evolution, from foragers to farmers to factory workers, and the challenges created by societal change of staying bonded to one another.  He celebrated shared events and tasks which create our The Common Life, such as the epeme, a ritual regular dance of the Hazda tribe in Tnazania, the effect of which is to strengthen trust.  We have a primal need to find ways where we come together on equal terms in pursuit of a shared goal.  Jon’s manifesto is both strategic – civic service, new-parent skilling, retirement planning – and personal:  many actions we should take individually to reach out and connect.

Will Tanner, Director of the policy thinktank Onward, alerted us to alarming variations in how different generations are experiencing alienation and loneliness, and how much harsher this can be for young people.  Even after discounting the trauma to young lifestyles constrained by Covid,  their levels of trust and connection are dramatically lower.  How fortunate that we have campaigns like LonelyNotAlone instigated by the Co-Op Foundation to include young people in that universal agenda.

“We must keep this shared endeavour souring high”

A gauntlet was thrown down to find new ways of connecting people.  It might have felt like a small step forward to see chatty cafes popularised in the tv series Fleabag ! But we have to do so much more, and now: so what about Yasmin’s plea for ‘Friends’ cafés: spaces which bring people of all ages together and affirm the best of that word ‘community’ ?

And now this week we have a great opportunity to unravel the Big Picture in which marginalised people can deal with their loneliness.  We’ll be examining how specific groups are challenged differently: people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, care leavers, unpaid carers, those without a home or in poor mental health.

Through the Loneliness Strategy in England,  echoed across the UK and perhaps heard across the world, we have a sense of direction and energy.  We must keep faith with it.  One Big Idea of the Strategy for the Big Picture has been social prescribing: how now do we fulfil the promise of that policy and help people connect, finding what matters to them as well as identifying ‘the matter with them’.  Leaders in the care world will help us examine this.  We’ll take stock on how in the scary new world we can balance online methods with precious physical interaction, in ‘hybrid’ services.   For all this to work we have to climb the mountain of enabling people to access all this opportunity out there: overcoming psychological barriers, digital inhibitions, and actually getting to places. So we’ll be exploring that umbrella word “transport”.

And what is so inspiring is that the sharing is world-wide.  We’ll be hearing from the Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection, which is showing that learning can indeed travel and far.

Within that Big Picture we must stay focused on this emotion cluster of loneliness. Fittingly we have a hugely influential authority from the last ten years, Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, to draw the threads together, and help us renew our efforts to make our Common Life a daily reality. Because after all, as the Jo Cox Foundation will be reminding us,  we have so much More In Common than that which drives us apart.  In fulfilling that truth, we had a turbocharged launch last week.  But this week and beyond will shape whether we can keep this shared endeavour soaring high.