As a community worker at Community Links and elsewhere for many years I have come to believe passionately in the importance of nurturing “deep value” relationships. I am worried that, as a society, we are now moving in the wrong direction.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be setting out some thoughts here on this devaluation in the currency of relationships, on the unwelcome consequences of our changing behaviour and on what might be done.
To be honest they won’t be whole “thoughts”. They will be half thoughts or quarter thoughts, I am hoping that we might finish them together. Some of them will almost certainly be bonkers. I hope that you will tell me so. Some may lead you onto new insights. I hope that you will share them.
This isn’t an intellectual exercise. I think there is a lot that we can do but in the spirit of reducing social isolation I also think that we should imagine and make those things together. I am beginning that process with these blogs. Please follow the conversation, join in if you can and spread the word.
I am worried that social isolation is rapidly becoming a modern epidemic and, in that regard at least, I am not alone. Our work on Changing London (1) showed that social connection, and the lack of it, was the top concern for our largest single group of Londoners. Higher than housing or health or crime although, as many pointed out, it is not unrelated to any of these other issues.
Our work was small scale but the facts are clear: about one in five people, of all ages, say they are lonely, at least one in ten are severely isolated. This isn’t only about old people alone for days on end, it is also about support for the new parent, a warm network for the job seeker, integration for the recent arrival and a caring community for us all. Strong relationships keep us all mentally and physically healthy, they make us feel more confident and more capable. They keep our communities safe, help us to cope, enable us to flourish, and make us happy.
Connecting well is not the same as being “well connected”. It is not about the size of our address book. It is about the quality of our relationships and, whilst we may now network and transact more than ever, meaningful time together has been, and is being, systematically displaced by fast and shallow connections. We are becoming more atomised and automated, more comfortable with technology but less close to one another.
Aggressive self-interest has triumphed over mutual support as the neo liberal economy has invaded every corner of our lives.
Our organisations, public and private, are bigger, more remote, less human.
Slow connections and real relationships can be facilitated by a machine or an organisation but they can’t be with a machine or an organisation but today everything is online.
We have hollowed out the heart of our business with call centres, our high streets with cash points and self-service checkouts, our neighbourhoods with design that strips out interaction and our public services with carers commissioned for seven minute visits, retendered every three months. Fake relationships are as ubiquitous in 2017, and just as insidious, as fake news.
We have been here before. The agrarian and industrial revolutions disrupted social patterns and called for new ways of behaving. Social change followed but it took a while. Now we are again in that catch up phase. If the technological upheaval that has so changed and devalued relationships is the third revolution, then this is 3.2.
We can’t rewind the clock but nor should we accept a devaluation in the currency of relationships as the price of advancement.
Banning or avoiding the technology or denying the overwhelming benefits of progress is futile and foolish. Instead we have to learn how to benefit from it in ways which don’t diminish our humanity but sustain and enrich it. We have to do things differently. Relationship offsetting should be considered to be as essential as carbon offsetting. Every time progress uproots relationships two more should be planted elsewhere. Responsible organisations would recognise this as a necessary cost of the licence to operate because without it, our world is not sustainable.
Tackling the causes of social isolation is the defining challenge for our generation. It will only be met by fundamentally rethinking how Britain works: our cities, our communities, our services, our businesses, everyone, everything, every where.
Imagine a place where meaningful relationships run through everything we do, they are the primary operating principle. Now think of our city. Our school. Our business. What would change?
On this blog next week I will begin to make some suggestions. Please sign up to read next weeks instalment and maybe even join the conversation.