Guest blog: Peter Barnett – Lonely planet or lonely people?

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The impact of demographic change on social attitudes and employment are the subject of a recent article by John Cacciopo [1]. In it he reminds us that in the 21st century we are facing profound demographic changes that are expected to transform communities and societies worldwide. He argues that the combination of rising life expectancy and declining social capital means that more people are experiencing isolation than ever before.

Cacciopo argues that within the world of retirees, those feelings of social isolation are lowest and wellbeing is highest among those who remain socially active, healthy and who continue to interact with friends and former co-workers. How can the remainder, who sometimes feel extremely isolated, come to share in a similar enduring social capital substitute which may go some way to replacing that of the long gone ‘village’ type community?

Importantly Cacciopo reminds us that rather than constituting a societal burden, the higher proportion of older adults in our societies has the potential to become a unique and valuable resource on which to build mutually beneficial intergenerational connections. He argues that longer lifespans and intergenerational interdependencies offer families, communities and societies a sound way forward, as do policies that promote not only longer, but also healthier and more productive lives.

Plainly human wellbeing, unlike health, is very much a product of reality: where you have been, where you are now and your perceptions of both, including the comparison of your own lot versus your neighbours and peers. In modern times our awareness of our neighbours situation, experiences and predicaments have been greatly increased by technology. Social networking, once the domain of family and local community influence, has gone global and online, 24 hours a day. The downside is that individuals are exposed to, and therefore have to cope with and manage, fewer personal social connections in the traditional sense. Committed, enduring social identities, often few in number, are being replaced by many more, shorter-term collaborations resulting in a weakening of social bonds. Technology is, and will continue to be, a strong driver for economic and social change. For many of us communication is increasing, at least in quantity if not in quality but some, possibly amidst a cacophony of noise, are experiencing increased isolation.

Is there a solution? In an increasingly globalized world, what is required is a human-centred global perspective that recognises the central and essential contribution of social identity to human economic welfare and social capital. Recently, Steve Jobs, the pioneer of IT for personal use, sadly passed away. Amidst the many valedictory comments was a mention of his 2005 Stanford University Speech [2] in which he famously said ‘Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice… have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Policy makers need to foster and encourage mutual support without discouraging entrepreneurship.

In the UK David Cameron would argue that in its simplest form that is what his ‘Big Society’ is all about; employing a more local approach to social action, rights and responsibilities; enabling communities to feeling empowered enough to solve problems in their neighbourhood and having the freedom to influence and discuss topics that matter to them. In our communities, we can get through this economic downturn if everyone, of all ages, works positively alongside one another. We either swim together and fulfil our hopes and dreams – or drown sadly alone!

Peter Barnett

[1] Lonely planet, John T Cacioppo, RSA Journal, Autumn 2011
[2] Commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, At Stanford University on June 12, 2005

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