‘The Lonely Century’: Noreena Hertz’s tonic for the ‘Black Mirror’ generation

The Lonely Century is Noreena Hertz’s thorough interrogation of the experience of loneliness and the ways that we can reconnect.

If the mantras of ‘togetherness’ spruiked by social media companies were true, the world should be one big, happy family. With literally billions of us connected to the digital world in myriad ways, the notion of a Lonely Century (Hachette) appears contradictory on first inspection.

The eminent economist and thought leader Noreena Hertz delves into the heart of this paradox in her book. Through the experiences of her interviewees, coupled with historical and economical analysis, The Lonely Century is a simultaneously sweeping overview of the drivers of 21st century loneliness, as well as a practical guide for genuine connection.

Noreena Hertz The Lonely Century 2

Fittingly, the book has attracted praise from Black Mirror creator, Charlie Brooker. His work plumbs the depths of dystopian despair at humanity’s loss of control in its relationship with technology. And while The Lonely Century warns of a similarly dark future, it’s also a balm for our collective anxiety.

The book was written in this most lonely of years, with so much of the world enduring lengthy periods of enforced isolation. Though the physical manifestations of loneliness are obvious, Hertz argues that the drivers of solitude are more complex:

“It also incorporates how disconnected we feel from politicians and politics, how cut off we feel from our work and our workplace, how excluded many of us feel from society’s gains, and how powerless, invisible and voiceless so many of us believe ourselves to be.”

While this overarching observation on loneliness doesn’t point to a single root cause, the chapters in book attack this issue from a variety of perspectives. For example, she leans on the teachings of Hannah Arendt to support her assertion that marginalisation (and its attendant loneliness) is at the heart of political disenfranchisement.

Hertz conducts experiments and collates data from the world’s cities, drawing the link between economic prosperity and lack of social contact. She notes examples of when municipal governments avoid spending on public places and the resulting decrease in mingling between neighbours.

The impacts of loneliness are felt particularly acutely at the intersection of humanity and digital communications. Hertz writes:

“A 2018 global survey of 4,000 18 to 34-year-olds in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Australia and Japan found that 75% prefer communicating by text rather than phone calls, with these exchanges themselves increasingly circumscribed, largely a function of design.” 

Noreena Hertz The Lonely Century book cover

Significantly, however, Noreena Hertz points toward examples of communal success — like the fact that firefighters who planned and ate their meals together performed better on the job; the multiple communities from far-flung places that live longer, healthier lives because they prioritise social cohesion; the benefits of ‘micro-interactions’ with your barista, and so on.

The confluence of the ever-increasing reliance on digital technology, disruptive work routines and political tribalism may lead us down a lonely path. But as Hertz points out through many examples, active participation on an individual, community and government level can help us to lead better lives together.

A meticulously researched and empathetically written book, The Lonely Century is a thought-provoking exploration of a phenomenon that we all experience, yet seldomly understand. Through its articulation of loneliness and its impacts, it has the power to instigate change in our own habits and help us understand — and connect with — our loved ones and our wider communities.

The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart is out now via Hachette.