Community Links

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Posts Tagged ‘social isolation’

Fake relationships and Revolution 3.2

Monday, February 13th, 2017

The launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission a couple of weeks ago attracted more media attention than might be expected for such an event. No doubt this was largely due to the appalling circumstances of its genesis: Ms Cox was deeply concerned about the issue and was planning the commission at the time of her murder. MPs Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy are now carrying forward the work that she began.

However I don’t think the tragic association accounts for all the attention: As I have written previously, at least one in five Brits are lonely often or all of the time. Loneliness is a twenty first century  plague and although almost all the press coverage over the last two weeks has focused on  older people this is, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, a misleading emphasis.  Study after study has shown that no age or social group is immune.

 

We have been thinking about the early action contribution to this conversation. Our Early Action in Later Life report stirred passions in 2014 with the assertion that “befriending schemes are to social isolation what food banks are to poverty”.

We meant no disrespect to befriending schemes or to Food Banks, both are an essential response to a crisis, but neither, on their own, offer a long term solution. Alongside the remedial work we need a deeper, longer term approach to redressing the causes of loneliness.  Just as we must ask “why are so many people hungry?” and tackle those issues, so too must we ask “why are so many people lonely?” and confront the causes

This takes us into the wider issue of social isolation which we need to address not only to beat loneliness but also to boost educational performance, enhance economic opportunity and social mobility, reduce health inequalities, improve social cohesion and indeed do almost everything that really matters.

And, far from making progress on social isolation, we are not even moving in the right direction. Instead we are, as Alvin Toffler wrote, “experiencing the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”.  Our every transaction is now automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctor’s appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those that we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. And we have devalued our understanding of the concept of “relationships” to the point where I travel to Birmingham and Virgin Trains assure me that they “value our relationship”.

Fake relationships are as ubiquitous in 2017, and just as insidious, as fake news.

Across the sweep of history this sequence is not unfamiliar. First the agrarian, then the industrial revolutions disrupted social patterns and called for new ways of behaving individually and collectively. Social change followed but it took a while. Now we are again in the catch up phase. Part 3.2 as it were, of the technological revolution that has so transformed our lives in recent years.

We have to tackle the scourge of social isolation by fixing the cause. To do that we must begin with a two part question:

First, what is a real relationship?  I think it is one that nourishes with depth and meaning.  It is between people, possibly facilitated by a machine or an organisation but not with a machine or an organisation. And it is about more than kindness or reciprocity, empathy or solidarity although it is all these things. It may be closest to what in Africa is known as Ubuntu – “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life” Desmond Tutu.

And then, what is a real 21st century relationship? We can’t rewind the clock even if we wanted to. Our generation’s big challenge is to fathom out how we use and benefit from the recent advances in ways which don’t devalue our essential humanity but which value, sustain and enrich it.

Voluntary organisations like ours don’t have all the pressing mandatory duties of a statutory authority. We have the freedom, and with the freedom a responsibility, to try to understand not just how we manage or ameliorate a problem but how we build a better society. I’m not sure what Revolution 3.2 should look like but I do think  we should try to free the space to think about it not least because, as Dr Toffler also said, You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Nurturing relationships: The test of a shared society

Monday, January 16th, 2017

How many contacts do you have stored on your phone? The head of an adolescent mental health unit once told me that his patients typically had 6 to 10 contacts listed and most of those people were likely to be professional helpers like himself. Social isolation could be both a cause and a consequence of his young patient’s ill health. It was certainly a common characteristic.

I was thinking about this when I read about the Age Concern research published last week revealing that “Half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend each day alone, with no interaction with others, and nearly half a million more commonly do not see or speak to anyone for five or six days a week”.

And whilst we are on the subject of alarming numbers an Action for Children survey of 2,000 parents in 2015 found that almost a quarter said they ‘always or often’ felt lonely.

Social isolation is not a problem for the young or for the old. It is a galloping crisis for us all

Last week we wondered on this blog whether a “shared society” is empty rhetoric or the PM’s genuine intention. If the phrase has any serious substance our collective ability to reconnect with one another, or at least to reverse the trends, must surely be the test.

The consequences may vary – loneliness, ill health, long term unemployment etc. – but the roots are the same. School performance, economic opportunities, physical and mental health, and ultimately life expectancy are all substantially influenced by the strength and depth of our social connections. Very few of us glide effortlessly through life without ever experiencing any difficulty. Our capacity for coping and bouncing back depends in part on our readiness, our acquired skills and strengths, and in part on the support around us, the networks and relationships which sustain and recharge us.

We often make the case for early action but nowhere is it more self-evidently essential. As the Early Action Task Force has noted befriending schemes are important but not sufficient. They are to loneliness what food banks are to poverty – an essential response to a crisis but not a long term solution. The early action response to isolation would involve a commitment to sustained community building throughout the life course – essentially what much of Community Links work on the ground has been all about for almost 40 years.

As we explored on this blog a few weeks ago technology has, in recent years, swept into every corner of our lives often, in the process, sweeping out friendships and relationships. We think people change lives, not transactions. Valuing and developing this element of deep value in our services here, and working to embed it more broadly across the public domain is another long standing priority for Community Links and now more urgent than ever.

The most useful work experience placements or internships are invariably shared across “warm networks” and as many as 8 out of 10 new jobs go to people known to the employer. The old cliché about it not being “what you know but who you know” is still a fair comment on the state of social mobility and, more broadly, on the distribution of opportunity in communities like ours. Building networks, and nurturing the confidence to negotiate them, is the focus of Community Links programmes like Future Links which won a Charity Times Award last October. It isn’t rocket science but it is important and it does work.

Incidental Connections showed that there is no single right way to build communities and to nurture effective and meaningful relationships but doing it better in 2017 may well be the single highest priority for organisations like ours, Jobcentres, GPs, police officers, schools, and indeed any agency in the public domain. Whether Theresa May is, or is not, seriously committed to building a shared society, we should be.