Book review: The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz

If you think you don’t need to read another book on loneliness, or you’ve put the subject in the ‘too hard basket’, then think again.

Noreena Hertz, PhD based at the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London, has been described by the Observer as “one of the world’s leading thinkers.” On this subject, I certainly agree. No Luddite, she fires a challenging shot across the bow of modern society in her most recent, post-Covid book The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart.

Many of us know that modern society with its demands and pressures has already resulted in people becoming increasingly isolated and lonely. We may also be aware that many older people especially suffer from extreme loneliness, some not seeing someone else from one week to the next and with little prospect of forming new meaningful relationships. What we may not appreciate, however, is that loneliness is an equally big issue for many younger people and may well be looking to get a whole lot worse unless we do something about it.

What I found so special about this book is that Hertz has added considerable new information to this concerning topic. Not only has she looked at the problem through the widest of lenses, but she has also factored in the human element; understanding why we do what we do and why we enjoy it. While she readily confesses to being as mesmerised by much of what modern life offers as the rest of us, she also sees the pitfalls and offers a steadying hand on what could be a run-away situation. For example, she explains why some street design and architecture may have highly disadvantageous and unintended consequences, and how social media, robotics, the hyped-up, trendy workspace or working from home have implications we may not have thought of (a ‘fake’ type of community being one of them). The chapter on the lonely mouse and its response to loneliness was quite confronting and alarming: “In almost all cases, the longer a mouse is isolated, the more aggressive it is to the newcomer.”

The Lonely Century is unavoidably political too, as it challenges the structural issues in our society being particularly critical of neo-liberalism and unfettered capitalism.

I found Hertz’s arguments almost always added to my knowledge and were nuanced and insightful on many levels. Some of the stories about the experiences people have of loneliness may surprise you and break your heart at the same time.

Hertz strikes me as someone who embraces modernity but at the same perhaps sees the risks more clearly than the rest of us. We don’t have to be victims of what our often ‘rabbit hole’ existence throws at us. We can get out of the burrow and reclaim more humanity and social cohesion.

If the subject of loneliness concerns you (the health implications alone are horrendous) then this is a must-read book. If you want to do something about it then this is your call to action and your ‘go to’ reference. The bibliography and notes take up about a third of the book. It’s an easy and engrossing read.

I unreservedly recommend this book. It’s a ground breaker. Thank you Noreena.

About Eleanor Bodger

Eleanor Bodger
Co-founder and visionary leader of Eldernet.

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