It is 75 years since William Beveridge set out his vision of a welfare state, in a report that profoundly changed the shape of Britain. He identified what he called the five “giant evils” – Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness. I believe that if Beveridge were alive today he would add a sixth evil – Loneliness.
Today’s world is very different to the one Beveridge sought to improve. His giants have yet to be brought down. But many of the ties that bound society together in the middle of the last century have been so weakened that they barely function any longer. Trade unions, churches, the local pub, the workplace – these institutions are now marginal or they have changed out of recognition. We are living in a disconnected society.
When the culture and the communities that once connected us to one another disappear we can be left feeling abandoned and cut off from society.
The modern economy has generated great wealth, but it has been at the expense of our connection with others. Inequality divides us by wealth and status. Globalisation fragments our communities. Markets turn relationships into transactions. Technology replaces people with machines.
In the last few decades loneliness has escalated from personal misfortune into a social epidemic. More and more of us live alone. We work at home more. We spend a greater part of our day alone than we did ten years ago. It sometimes feels like our best friend is the smartphone.
Young people are too often left to navigate their own way into the future. Without resources and family support they risk falling into loneliness. Families are more separated by distance and those who divorce or who lose a husband, wife or partner have no one around them to grieve with.
Far from being defeated, poverty – what Beveridge called Want – is increasing. There have been huge advances in the battle against Disease, but many older people face a quality of life that is far from what social reformers sought to achieve. And death has been medicalised with far too many of us dying lonely deaths in anonymous hospitals or care homes amongst strangers.
Following the murder of my friend Jo Cox, I agreed to become co-chair of the Loneliness Commission she had established, alongside my Conservative friend and colleague Seema Kennedy. We will publish our report on Friday. As Jo recognised, Loneliness has become a public health issue. It is no longer just a personal problem but has become structured into society so that often we cannot overcome it without help.
The crisis of loneliness exposes the limits of our welfare state. It is a deep challenge to our models of social reform. Solutions from the past – top down, target driven, payment by results, bureaucratic, Whitehall lever pulling – won’t work today. They are costly, alienating and part of the problem. Industrial models of reform based on state administration and market transactions treat individuals like units and have high costs of failure.
Our teachers, social workers, probation officers, employment and housing workers are our builders of a better society. But they’ve been turned into cogs in a machine spending their time servicing the system with meetings, testing, assessing, referring, auditing and filling in questionnaires, forms and reports. They are good people who want to make a difference but nothing changes.
Beveridge would not only recognise the evil of loneliness, he would follow up on his belief in voluntary action and give more power and control to people.
We need a new kind of welfare system that acts as a convenor bringing people together to help them help themselves. It must develop the capabilities and assets we each need to live a good life. It should encourage a sense of belonging and seek to use the transformative power of relationships to change people’s lives for the better.
Action by the state is part of the answer but far the whole solution. Social change needs millions of small changes. We need to create new institutions, services and organisations that connect people with one another. And we need to think how we can use new technologies to expand connectivity not social isolation and enrich rather than impoverish society.
Central and local government can play a role in reducing the levels of loneliness by measuring the impact of their services and policies on social connection.
We should extend the Citizens Service programme for young people and introduce similar schemes for older generations. Similarly, we want not just Teach First, but an expansion of what might be called Teach Last so older people can bring their knowledge and experience into the class room. Language lessons for all non-English speakers would do much to help break down the social isolation of migrants.
To solve a problem, we must first recognise it and name it and then we need to think together how to solve it. This has been the purpose of the Loneliness Commission. Everyone can live a life less lonely, but only once we recognise that we all have a part in achieving Jo’s aim when she said she couldn’t tolerate “a country where thousands of people are living lonely lives forgotten by the rest of us.”
In 1942 William Beveridge called for a “comprehensive policy of social progress”. In 2017, that progress can be advanced only by adding loneliness to the list of immediate and urgent challenges to be overcome.
Rachel Reeves MP is the Co-Chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial and Select Committee and author of Alice in Westminster. Before being elected to Parliament, Rachel was an economist working at the Bank of England.