A ministry for loneliness

On a rather gloomy day in Melbourne - a sad one when the city has lost its greatest cricketing son ever - I came across the latest idea of government innovation: A minister for loneliness! 

Election season, so Victorian politicians are confronted with many catchy manifesto ideas. Emerging from one of the most stringent and longest lockdowns anywhere in the world, mental health is indeed at the top of the agenda here. Therefore, the ministry to tackle loneliness sounds right - and timely!

I am not a huge fan of governments looking to address social issues. A friend helpfully pointed to me to the Ministry of Silly Walks, which is indeed as innovative and perhaps as needed for our dour times. The effects of the lockdown were devastating, but a minister to solve the problem? I almost misread the proposed title as a minister OF loneliness!

To my surprise, though, it turned out not to be a new idea at all. That I did not know that the UK was the first to have such a minister in 2018 was perhaps because I stopped paying attention to anything that Theresa May's government was doing; but it was only apt to have that administration appoint first such minister! Japan followed suit in 2021, in the middle of a suicide epidemic during the pandemic. It seems to be an idea whose time has come.

Obviously loneliness is not a new problem. My little Google research pointed me to UCLA's loneliness scale and Australian Psychological Society's studies in 2018 that concluded that 1 in 4 Australians are lonely. In 2019, Scientific American found that 47% of American adults were feeling lonely. The Economist, reporting in 2018, pointed out that 40% of British adults are perhaps lonely, and the British youth are as susceptible to loneliness as the older people. By then, Japan had half a million 'hikikomori', those who lock themselves in for months. It is not a side-effect of the pandemic, but a far more pervasive problem that we are dealing with here.

Plainly, this is the corrosive underside of modern living. Robert Putnam was writing about the dislocation of American communities in 1995 (published as a book, Bowling Alone, in 2000). Jon Lawrence's "Me, Me, Me: The search for community in post-war England" (published by OUP) also puts forward a similar diagnosis. In more than one way, this is the other side of progress - along with social inequality, environmental degradation and rise of the tax heavens - that we so much celebrate! 

It would be a mistake to think about this as a rich country problem, though. The 'market liberalisations' in various 'developing' countries came with the rise of urban conglomerates, migrant workers and the decline of family. Growing up in India, I never thought that living with parents was something abnormal. But in one generation, that became stigmatised. Now, the entire economic framework of small flats and worker hostels, spanning entire suburbs of rapidly growing 'miracle cities', depend on the industry of loneliness.

It's not just living - it's working too! I am referring not just to the popular culture phenomenon of 'gig working' but also the lionised ever impoverished 'entrepreneur', living precariously as the cannon fodder of big capital. By voluntarily giving up the contract of loyalty and commitment at work, by embracing 'freedom' over 'stability', loneliness seems to be the defining creed of how we live.

But would a Minister solve all this? Frankly, I believe that portfolio will make a very lonely minister. Because he or she - and I suspect it would always be a 'she' betraying the tokenism - would have to talk about things no one wants to talk about. And, indeed, she would have an impossible job, perhaps only funding a few well-meaning and mostly lonely volunteers speak to other self-aware lonely people who feel like picking up the phone to talk to someone! A bit like the Ministry of Silly Walks really - one big step for the governments, a satire on the mankind. 

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