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The Loneliness crisis: address to the Sydney Institute, May 4 1999



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THE

LONELINESS

CRISIS

 

 

Lindsay Tanner MP

Federal Member for Melbourne

 

 

Address to the Sydney Institute,

May 4 1999

 

Contemporary Australian society seems overwhelmed by social problems.  At a time of apparent economic prosperity, community anxiety a bout family breakdown, drug abuse, gambling, youth suicide, violence and home invasion continues to mount.  Widespread ambivalence about the benefits of economic change is reflected in a rising tide of community concern about negative social consequences.

 

These social problems broadly reflect steadily increasing loneliness, alienation and social exclusion.  Although these things are difficult to quantify, there can be little doubt that since the late 1960s our society has seen the collapse or erosion of many of the social structures around which people built relationships, personal worth and belonging.

 

The decline of rigid family and social structures and enormous advances in transport and communications have been tremendously liberating. Yet greater freedom for all has been accompanied by greater isolation and loneliness for many.

 

Older people are more readily abandoned to a lonely existence by more physically and emotionally remote families. Young people lacking the key attributes of physical appearance, personal wealth and social appeal are more easily excluded from social

participation.  Retrenched middle-aged workers are cut loose from their primary source of personal identity and self-esteem, with little hope of regaining it.  Many individuals carry the appalling label “loser”, the modern social equivalent of leper.

 

A recent letter I received from a middle-aged single mother from Glen Waverley very poignantly expressed the devastating effects of social exclusion.  She talked of the social devaluation she has experienced in a middle class suburban community as a result of leaving her abusive husband and struggling to care for several children, some with significant disabilities, on her own.

 

There is a loneliness crisis out there.  More and more people are excluded, alienated and despairing.  The proliferation of gambling, drug abuse, suicide and family breakdown reflects this surge in social dislocation.  We are living in an increasingly alienated community.  The fact that the sections of my book Open Australia which deal with these issues were highlighted by tabloid newspapers and largely ignored by the quality media indicates the nature and extent of the problem.  Loneliness and alienation may not be big issues in the top end of town, but they are in the general community.

 

A recent study found that 10 per cent of elderly Australians see another person on average less than twice a week.  The physical dispersion of friends and family coupled with high transport costs and physical mobility problems ensure s that many people live lonely, isolated lives.[1]

 

Different forms of isolation are experienced by many young people.  In amongst the commentary about media culture and gun control arising from the recent Denver school massacre were some telling observations about the psychological background to the tragedy.  “We thought of them as losers and dorks”, said one classmate of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.  “He really felt unloved.  He was lonely”, said another about Klebold.[2] Although the explanations behind this tragedy are complex, loneliness and social exclusion clearly played a significant role.

 

The origins of this crisis lie in the extraordinarily powerful forces of individualism generated by technological and economic change and magnified by the associated social revolution of the 1960s.  Virtually all of the social and economic structures around which people built their lives have either disintegrated or changed beyond recognition.  Neighbourhood is anonymous, marriage is temporary, gender roles have disappeared, hard work is not appreciated and behaving properly and decently no longer matters.  Or at least this is how it seems.

 

The two collective belief systems which have enabled people to organise their lives around certain principles and assumptions, religion and socialism, are in serious decline.  The previously dominant role of tradition is receding rapidly, with concomitant loss of predictability and certainty for many people.

 

This erosion of individual identity and self-worth is occurring in the workplace as well as outside it.  In his new book The Corrosion of Character , Richard Sennett provides telling illustrations of the personal disorientation emerging from the new world of work.[3] He contrasts the emotional stability of Enrico, an elderly janitor, with the social turmoil and family tensions of his highly paid consultant son, Rico.  He highlights the change in a Boston bakery, where a traditional work environment of clearly defined roles and heavy work has been superseded by an antiseptic environment of transient, non-committal workers lacking occupational identity and self-respect.  Sennett even shows how the pervasive fashion for teamwork in the workplace contributes to personal disorientation without generating greater individual empowerment.[4]

 

The wave of economic restructuring which swept through our economy in the 1980s and 1990s is clearly central to these changes in the workplace and society.  Enthusiastic advocates of economic change often fail to acknowledge that this transformation is undermining the non-market family and community structures which underpin the market economy.

 

The free market system depends upon an elaborate network of community relationships and social trust in order to function properly.  A system based on contractual relations requires a certain level of social predictability and long-term stability.  Rampant individualism and the culture of instant gratification, and the social problems they engender, threaten to undermine capitalism almost as much as they have undermined socialism.  It may be difficult to prove this point statistically, but it is nonetheless valid.  As one recent commentator on globalisation remarked: “it is easy to prove that uncompetitive practices are inefficient, while the chain of consequences that runs from social stability to economic growth is far more complex.”[5]

 

Human beings are driven partly by the need for recognition.  Our need for material well-being is supplemented by a very powerful need to be loved, respected, admired and valued.  Obviously the precise nature of this need for recognition varies enormously from one person to another, but it is nonetheless a very powerful factor in human behaviour.

 

Our society is experiencing growing inequality of recognition which in many ways resembles increasing inequality in wealth and income.  In the prevailing culture of individualism, the innate worth of an individual is devalued, and largely superseded by external characteristics such as physical appearance, education and personal wealth.  A cult of success has engulfed our community discourse, with intense competition permeating almost all forms of human activity.  Those who are losers suffer social devaluation which can lead quickly into alienation and loneliness, and the many social pathologies which social exclusion tends to breed.

 

The rise of cosmetic surgery, eating disorders, and celebrity magazines all reflect this trend.  Anthony Giddens argues that individuals in western societies now create their own identities.[6] A much smaller proportion of the individual’s identity is socially predetermined, and hence he or she is far more reliant on the vagaries of the “recognition market place”.  Adopting Sennett’s phrase the creation of identity is now dominated by “the association of the flexible and the fluid with the superficial”.[7]

 

Growing loneliness and alienation translates into a variety of social and economic problems.  Recently the Royal Australian College of Physicians called for action to address rising inequality, which they identified as a key contributor to serious health problems.  They referred to the negative health consequences of social exclusion and workplace change.[8] At a recent conference on ageing Professor Hal Kendig of Sydney University argued that loneliness and isolation amongst older people leads to poorer health outcomes.[9]

 

In a fascinating recent article in the Guardian Weekly, Mari Marcel-Thekaekara described a visit to Europe by members of an extremely poor indigenous people from Tamil Nadu in southern India.  The contrasting nature of poverty in Glasgow’s infamous Easterhouse estate was evident.

 

“Suddenly we were hit by the reality of the poverty in Glasgow.  Most of the men in Easterhouse hadn’t had a job in 20 years.  They were dispirited, depressed, often alcoholic.  Their self-esteem had gone.  Emotionally and mentally they were far worse off than the poor where we worked in India, even though the physical trappings of poverty were less stark”.[10]

 

Some commentators now argue that social exclusion is as serious a problem as material poverty.[11] Clearly there are some very practical reasons why governments should treat the problems of loneliness and alienation seriously.

 

The origins of these problems lie in the extraordinary wave of social change which  swept through western societies in the 1960s and 1970s.  Driven by powerful forces of tech nological change such as television and the pill, this surge of change was profoundly individualistic in nature.  Most of the major causes which characterised the youth revolt of this era, such as sexual freedom, anti-conscription, feminism and gay liberation, were driven primarily by powerful notions of individual rights.  The prevailing material affluence of the period contributed to the emergence of a new ethos of personal consumption and experimentation.[12]

 

Unfortunately since that time our society has experienced a substantial increase in family breakdown, drug abuse, youth suicide and other serious social problems.  These phenomena were not caused by the 60s revolution, but are consequences of the same social and economic forces which produced that revolution.

 

British researchers Michael Schluter and David Lee argue that the entire social dynamics of western societies have changed radically since this time.  They contend that human relationships are now much more governed by choice and much less by obligation than in previous times.  In the new “mega-community” of human existence, individuals are more anonymous within their immediate surroundings and less constrained by ties of social obligation.  Relationships are more conditional, and much less determined by traditional social structures.[13]

 

As a result, individuals are more able to avoid the bonds of inherently unequal relationships, where they give more and receive less.  They can move away from socially dependent grand-parents, or distance themselves from unpopular and unattractive class-mates.  Under what Professor Bruce Singh of the Melbourne University Department of Psychology calls “the dogma of freedom”, individualism and the predominance of choice over obligation are eroding community structures of social inclusion.[14]

 

It is time to rethink our approach to relationships and social inclusion. As Schluter observes, “on the left, the commitment to freedom of choice in personal lifestyle and individual rights has led into a political cul-de-sac”.[15] This does not imply turning back the clock, or reimposing the social constraints of the past.  Nostalgia for a world that has passed is no foundation for good policy. Liberation from the conformism and social oppression of the past has been a very positive development for our society.  We have to deal with the associated negative changes without reversing the advances we have made.

 

Until the 1960s, the “guiding story” of our society was material progress.[16] In the wake of the 60s revolution, personal development and individual freedom have emerged as a new guiding story. These powerful impulses have now all but exhausted themselves.  Simplistic concepts of liberation no longer provide the answers to contemporary social problems.  Our most pressing problems are a reflection of insufficient order and stability rather than the absence of rights and freedoms. A new guiding story is required.

 

Our new social objective should be ensuring that all individuals have a capacity to participate in our society.  This offers a philosophical foundation for social institutions which counteract the dominance of individualism.  Society has an obligation to ensure that all its members are able to belong. Ensuring a capacity to participate extends beyond the fulfilment of basic material needs, and entails a mutual obligation to contribute to the community in some way.

 

Society has an obligation to ensure that individuals are not unduly deprived of a viable social context by the unfettered operation of free markets.  This transcends mere equality of opportunity, but does not extend to ensuring equality of outcomes. Gover nments must play a role in counteracting growing loneliness and alienation by ensuring that all citizens have access to the means of social inclusion.

 

Our society is interwoven with countless organisations which build and sustain community and which provide individuals with a capacity to participate. Some are government bodies, some are government-funded, and some are entirely independent of government. They include community health centres, neighbourhood houses, sporting clubs, playgroups and residents associations.  Because the left tends to focus on the role of the state, and the right on the role of the individual, the importance of these organisations is widely undervalued.

 

Conservative governments around the country are gradually dismantling or undermining many of these community organisations and thus exacerbating problems of social exclusion and alienation.  The Federal government has virtually destroyed Skillshare and similar community organisations which played a critical role in ensuring greater inclusion within the labor market.  The Victorian Government has dismantled tenants associations on Melbourne's public housing estates. The focus of community involvement, participation and belonging which the tenants associations delivered has been destroyed.

 

The most recent example of this headlong rush to atomisation is the attempt to impose voluntary student unionism on Australia’s campuses.  As a result of the Howard Government’s obsession with a highly artificial notion of freedom of association, many vitally important nodes of participation will be destroyed.

 

When I arrived at Melbourne University as a 17-year-old from the country, I knew virtually no-one, and had been on campus only once before.  My ability to integrate into the campus community, participate in collective activity and develop a sense of identity and belonging was provided by the student union.  Through running and funding countless clubs, activities and structures, student unions provide nodes of participation which enable individuals to meet like-minded people, make friends, and be involved in activities outside their formal academic activities.  No matter how bizarre some of these things may be, they all perform the same function: providing individuals with somewhere to belong.

 

In this case, freedom of association simply means less association.  It means a diminished capacity to participate and ultimately more social exclusion and loneliness.  For those who do not turn up to their first year at university in the company of fifteen friends from their year 12 class, the social consequences are likely to be considerable.

 

Building a new community framework to counter alienation, social exclusion and loneliness should start with a renewed commitment to such organisations.  Their intrinsic value is far greater than the sum total of the services they provide. This does not require heavy-handed intervention by government, but in some cases little more than greater awareness of the real value of some things governments already do. The Home and Community Care program plays a vital role in alleviating isolation and loneliness among many elderly people, yet its ostensible rationale is the direct provision of particular services.

 

Greater assistance to community organisations which provide people with a place to participate and belong should be a priority for government. The emerging University of the Third Age movement provides such a focus for older people with limited assistance from government.  It is time we rediscovered compassion, and recognised that dollars are not necessarily the primary currency of social inclusion and belonging.

 

In an era of dramatic change and profound insecurity, a new role for government is required.  Sustaining the bonds of community and relationships has not been a major focus of government in western societies.  The new society that is evolving demands a different role for government, one which includes strengthening community and social relationships in the face of endless encroachment by markets and technology and the intense individualism they tend to foster.

 

Lindsay Tanner.

 

Footnotes

[1] Quoted in Hannon, K: “The Lonely Years” Adelaide Advertiser April 23, 1999.

[2] Cash, W: “America’s Aliens”, Sunday Age April 25, 1999.

[3] Sennett, R: The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998) pp.16-27, 68-75

[4] ibid. p. 112.

[5] Luttwak, E: Turbo-Capitalism (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1998) p.30

[6] Giddens, A: Beyond Left and Right (Polity Press,  Cambridge, 1994) p.126.

[7] Sennett, op. cit.,  p.75

[8] Long, S: “College of Physicians warns Howard on Health”,   Financial Review,   April 8. 1999.

[9] Quoted in Hannon, op.cit.

[10] Marcel-Thekaekara, M: “Penniless but by no means poor”, Guardian Weekly ,  March 21, 1999.

[11] See for example Mulgan, G: Connexity: How to live in a Connected World   (Chatto & Windus, London, 1997) p.5; Giddens, A: Beyond Left and Right (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1994 ) p.90.

[12] Mackay, H: Generations: Baby Boomers, Their Parents and Their Children (Macmillan, Sydney, 1997) pp. 116-118.

[13] Schluter, M and Lee, D: The R Factor (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1993).

[14] Quoted in Miller, C: “Why Boys Need to Learn to be Dads”, The Age, June 13, 1998.

[15] Schluter, M: “Making Relationships a Priority for Public Policy”, in Baker, N(ed.):

Building a Relational Society (Arena, Aldershot, 1996) p.12.

[16] An observation of Hugh Mackay quoted in Eckersley, R: “Perspective on Progress: Is Life Getting Better?”  (CSIRO Resource Futures Program,  Working Paper Series 97/27, Canberra

1997) p.44.

 

 

 

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