Just over a year ago, this parish carried a thoughtful piece on a “national shame” that blights modern Britain. Penned by Tom Gardner, it was a passionate and political precis of a crisis that has been long in gestation but has only recently come to the fore: loneliness amongst older people.
A few months later the BBC documentary “The Age of Loneliness” dug deeper into the issue, demonstrating powerfully how that chronic feeling of being alone can wreck the lives not just of older people, but for people of all ages and from all backgrounds. The film was well received. The Telegraph called it “a valuable social service aiming a torch, searchingly but with great care, at an invisible epidemic no one talks about”.
Throughout this terrible year of 2016, a different but not unrelated condition – that feeling of being left behind or excluded from a world constantly moving on – has taken on a new dimension. Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump in the US, have highlighted quite how many people feel disconnected in our connected age.
Amongst the many analyses of those twin electoral seizures, one in particular festers with me. It’s the notion that older and younger people, even when they live close by in densely populated neighbourhoods, have become ever more divergent: in culture, attitudes, access and the places they go.
This intergenerational division is not a new phenomenon, of course. Every generation strikes out a new path. We wouldn’t have that any other way. But in modern Britain it feels more and more that communities – and generations – are living in parallel worlds rather than truly sharing lives. And that has consequences, for our politics, for our cohesiveness and ultimately for our happiness, health and wellbeing.
There are a number of things we can do to arrest this division between generations, and the insidious isolation and loneliness it entrenches. First, we need to tackle the assumption that loneliness is a uniquely later life problem. It’s not.
In fact, research shows that while people over the age of 75 are indeed the loneliest age group in the UK, the second and third loneliest groups are those between 21 and 25 and 25 and 35 – often young professionals commuting to work with others who are just like them, who don’t yet have the community of the school gate, and whose social media consumption may deepen rather than fix their sense of being alone.
Second, we should challenge the stereotypes that caricature older people as uniquely “wise” and younger people as uniquely “dynamic”. Those labels are way too simplistic. A national campaign across political parties, the media, charities and businesses should do more to demonstrate what older and younger people can gain from one another – in shared time, laughter, relationships and new experiences.
Government can play a role too. Brexit by the book will do nothing to truly fix the divisions that have revealed themselves. The rift of the EU referendum was an expression of those schisms rather than a cause.
Social integration – across generations as well as ethnicities, classes and faiths – should therefore be at the core of Theresa May’s domestic agenda. Appointing a champion, attending cabinet, to work across departments to tackle the splits that have emerged in recent years would be a good start.
And we can all do our bit right away, by spending time with people who are not like us, by listening to others, by stepping out of our comfort zones, and by making an effort to understand one another, across generational and other divides.
In the charities that I run, North London Cares and South London Cares, we’ve been amazed at the outcomes of that simple premise. Older and younger people alike – from all sorts of backgrounds and life experiences – who share time through dance parties, new tech workshops, choirs, pub clubs and one-to-one friendships have begun to feel part of their changing communities again, rather than left behind by them. Studies show that through these interactions loneliness falls, and understanding and appreciation of ‘the other’ increases.
At this and any other time of year, it’s worth remembering that – that in spite of our many different life stories we really do have “more in common than that which divides us”. In 2016, and in the new year as we try to overcome our differences in the Supreme Court, in parliament and in our communities, that’s something we can all bear in mind.
Alex Smith is the founder of North London Cares and South London Cares. He was formerly an adviser to Labour leader Ed Miliband, and editor of LabourList. This article is based on a chapter he wrote for the report A Sense of Belonging: Building a more socially integrated society, published by the Fabian Society and Bright Blue, in partnership with The Challenge.