Dehumanising technology, unimaginative city planning and austerity have made us unhappy, unhealthy and hostile. This book is a crucial call to arms: in the wake of the pandemic, Hertz argues, governments have an opportunity to rebuild along better lines. Yet I have little confidence that the British government is thinking about the importance of community. If we could issue a reading list to 10 Downing Street, I’d put this book near the top.
This is underscored in Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century. The book covers a wide sweep of loneliness — relationships, cities and communities — and shows its impact on health and democracy, linking it to the surge in populism. One striking theme is loneliness at work — which Hertz addresses explicitly in a chapter on the office and on automation but threads through sections on politics and the loneliness economy too. As the woman who confessed to work loneliness shows, it is often a shameful secret — surely jobs are meant to be about money, status, purpose, not friendship?
Bringing such material to life necessarily means cherry-picking your examples. An impatient or hostile reader might take exception to the graduate student who spent so long curating her “Jen Goes Ziplining” Instagram post that she never actually went ziplining; also to the well-paid executive who lives out of his car and spends all his money on platonic cuddling services. The world is never short of foolish and broken people, and two swallows do not make a summer.Still, I can’t see how Hertz’s account is harmed by such vividly rendered first-person research. And readers keen to see Hertz’s working have 130 pages of notes to work from.