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BOOK REVIEW

Angst spreads in ‘The Lonely Century’

Even before the pandemic, many of us were suffering

JosÉ David Morales for The Boston Globe

Last March, Noreena Hertz, a London-based broadcaster and academic, was just finishing her book on what she already considered “the lonely century.” You could say that she didn’t know the half of it — or that she underestimated just how prescient her ideas would prove.

When the pandemic hit, the attendant lockdowns and quarantines only magnified the problem of social isolation. Hertz quickly rewrote. References to our annus horribilis now open the first chapter of “The Lonely Century” and are interwoven seamlessly throughout.

Hertz reports that, at least early on, many people expressed a stronger fear of loneliness than of COVID-19. She doesn’t tease out the implications of this finding, which should figure in any analysis of how our pandemic response went awry. Nor does she discuss the different national approaches to the prospect of loneliness: While some European countries advised single people to pair up for companionship and sex, US lockdowns mandated that those living alone stick to grocery shopping and solo walks.

In “The Lonely Century,” Hertz’s perspective is broad — provocatively so. She intentionally conflates the angst of individual solitude with political alienation, social atomization, and economic marginalization. “I define loneliness not only as feeling bereft of love, company or intimacy…,” Hertz writes. “It’s also about feeling unsupported and uncared for by our fellow citizens, our employers, our community, our government.”

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Transforming loneliness from an individual misfortune to a social ill, she demands societal solutions. The argument evokes and updates Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 classic, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” which famously bemoaned the decline of “social capital.”

To Hertz, loneliness is, in large part, an artifact of harsh, unrestrained capitalism — what she confusingly calls “neoliberalism,” a term associated in the United States with political centrism and public-private partnerships. The result of capitalist excesses, she argues, is increasing socioeconomic inequality, alienating work environments, and a sense of displacement that feeds right-wing populism. Hertz regards Donald Trump’s mega MAGA rallies as “massive community rituals” that provided a salve for existential loneliness.

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One irony is that the very capitalism Hertz blames for the loneliness pandemic also provides inventive market-based solutions: rental friends, cuddling partners, robot companions. This is what she calls the “Loneliness Economy.” Hertz rents a friend in New York (at $40/hour) and interviews a Los Angeles man so obsessed with hired cuddling (at $80/hour) that he has been reduced to living in his car. In Japan, social robots have proliferated as companions for the elderly — a development Hertz views sympathetically. It is possible, she suggests, that we might “even learn from robots how to be better humans.”

While loneliness may be a “brilliant evolutionary feature” to encourage social interaction, studies show that it also gives rise to stress and increases mortality. And it is not just the old who are at risk. Even before the novel coronavirus, Hertz writes, an astonishing three of five US adults considered themselves lonely. And the problem is stark among millennials, with more than one in five in the US telling pollsters they had no friends at all.

Hertz is particularly zealous in her critique of smartphones and social media. The younger generations’ immersion in technology, she writes, has sapped their ability to interact face-to-face. Phone addiction is creating a culture of misfits and zombies. Social media, while designed to connect, can also exclude, bully, polarize, even terrorize, as we have had cause to observe. Hertz favors legislation to break its grip, including a sure-to-be-controversial ban on “addictive social media” for minors.

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Among her other proposals is heightened investment in both social services and community infrastructure — places where, post-pandemic, people can gather, from parks and libraries to senior centers. She is a fan of “micro-interactions” with baristas and shop-owners in lieu of the trend toward “contactless commerce” accelerated by the pandemic.

While remote working has its allure, in the long run it increases loneliness, Hertz says. She prefers that the businesses of the future retain their offices, encourage group lunches, and even support volunteerism.

Her idealism peaks in her push for people to connect across political and geographic divides. The recommendation, however well-intentioned, exposes the fault lines in her expansive definition of loneliness. Could trying to talk politics, or even the most anodyne of topics, with a die-hard Trump supporter ease the ache of a Democrat on a lonely Saturday night? It seems doubtful — a mismatch between problem and solution.

Most of Hertz’s program, in any case, will have to await the return of normalcy, or whatever passes for it. One hopeful sign: In spreading the pain of loneliness more widely, the pandemic, as she notes, has helped destigmatize it. Suddenly, loneliness is, ironically, a shared condition, a part of quotidian public discourse. It remains to be seen to what extent all our promised, celebratory post-vaccine reunions ease our psychic distress — or merely force it back into the cultural closet.

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Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.

THE LONELY CENTURY: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart

By Noreena Hertz

Currency, 384 pp., $28