A New York apartment block: forced to work from home because of Covid-19, many people are experiencing loneliness © Mark Peterson/Redux/eyevine

A few years ago, a woman told me a secret: work made her lonely. The only London member of a New York-based financial services group, she was at first thrilled by the liberty of working from home: slobbing in tracksuit trousers, walks at lunchtime. But the freedom turned into an agony. Loneliness warped her thinking and nibbled at her self-esteem. Whenever a colleague rang, all the thoughts that had ricocheted around her head came pouring out. On and on she would chatter, unable to stop. It became unbearable, so she quit.

Little did I know then that this woman’s experience was a glimpse of the future. As the pandemic shuttered offices around the world, many of us, if only fleetingly, experienced loneliness and craved human contact. Even those who went to the workplace — retail assistants, health workers and manufacturers — were instructed to keep their distance. Lockdown, furlough and job losses stirred reflection on the value of companionship — not just of partners, friends and family but also colleagues. Employers complained that the lack of serendipitous conversations hurt creativity, and employees discovered Zoom was too transactional, unable to replace gossip or detect nuance.

Technology had transformed work long before Covid-19 — as my lonely remote worker knew only too well. Today, employees across the globe are seamlessly connected and algorithms sift through data far more swiftly than any human can. The march of the machines has stoked fears among some of a workless future, while others see it as liberating, eliminating the drudge of repetitive work and encouraging creativity and leisure.

The pandemic has accelerated some of these trends and made the future of work an urgent concern. Current debates on technology and the office versus homeworking focus on productivity, jobs and the sandwich economy, but they also speak to the human condition. After all, work fulfils a psychic and social, as well as financial, need.

This is underscored in Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century. The book covers a wide sweep of loneliness — relationships, cities and communities — and shows its impact on health and democracy, linking it to the surge in populism. One striking theme is loneliness at work — which Hertz addresses explicitly in a chapter on the office and on automation but threads through sections on politics and the loneliness economy too. As the woman who confessed to work loneliness shows, it is often a shameful secret — surely jobs are meant to be about money, status, purpose, not friendship?

While “coronavirus triggered a ‘social recession’ with its toxification of face-to-face contact”, Hertz writes, this trend was already under way. “Across nearly every country in the OECD (which includes most of Europe, the US, Canada and Australia) the percentage of 15-year-olds who say they feel lonely at school rose between 2003 and 2015.” Statistics elsewhere in the book show that this affects every age group — and she expects these figures to be “significantly higher” as a result of Covid-19.

Hertz, an academic and broadcaster whose previous critiques of globalisation and capitalism include The Silent Takeover (2001) and IOU: The Debt Threat (2004), takes a dim view of open-plan offices. Rather than forging connections they are alienating: unable to cope with the noise and interruptions, workers seal themselves off with headphones. Worse still is hot-desking (everyone’s pet hate). “More vagrants than nomads, the hot-desker inevitably feels ever more expendable and disregarded and ever less visible,” she writes, citing the example of Carla, whose colleagues took weeks to discover she was absent due to an unexpected operation.

This is counterproductive, says Hertz. Social workforces prove more productive. In one example cited in the book, US firefighters who cooked and ate together performed better than those who did not, suggesting that lunch could be a matter of life and death. “If we want the workplace to feel less lonely, part of the challenge is explicitly valuing qualities such as kindness, co-operation and collaboration . . . finding ways to reward and incentivise such behaviour.”

Urbanization last 500 years

The social function of work is a theme also explored in James Suzman’s book Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, though he takes a far longer timescale — a whopping 300,000 years. For almost three decades, the anthropologist has studied the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen” of southern Africa’s Kalahari, who lived pretty much as their ancestors had done for millennia until they were dispossessed of their land in the second half of the 20th century. They were the topic of his last book Affluence Without Abundance (2017), and they are the starting point for his new one.

Suzman shows that, rather than struggling for scarce resources, the Ju/’hoansi were relaxed and optimistic about their food supplies. They did not accrue reserves but worked short stints to find and prepare their food, leaving them free to devote most of their time to leisure. This, says Suzman, shows there is nothing inevitable about the way we organise work today, nor the weight we place on it. “For most of human history our ancestors were not as preoccupied with scarcity as we are now, [which] reminds us that there is far more to work than our efforts to solve the economic problem.”

Suzman explores a vast terrain: termites creating “intergenerational social communities”, social anthropology, the arrival of agriculture (in which prosperity was “fleeting, and scarcity evolved from an occasional inconvenience that foragers stoically endured . . . to a near perennial problem”), the Industrial Revolution, and the rise and demise of the company man. I confess to finding the shift to cities — a small portion of the book — zippier than the earlier history.

Both Hertz and Suzman draw on the late-19th and early-20th-century work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. He believed, Suzman writes, that “modern urban societies, where people performed many, often very different roles and so developed very different perspectives of the world . . . [making] it harder to bind people together”, caused societal anomie. This dislocation was fuelled not only by industrialisation but by the “malady of infinite aspiration”. Unlike economists, writes Suzman, Durkheim saw this burden of desires as a reaction to change rather than a permanent state, and was optimistic that it would settle down. On the contrary, writes Suzman, “constant and unpredictable change has become the new normal”.

Durkheim is a useful reminder of past convulsions. Despite Hertz’s claims that this is the loneliest century, which she blames on “neoliberal” capitalism placing a premium on competition and self-reliance, she concedes that “Karl Marx’s alienated factory worker” was pretty lonely too. I would wager that loneliness plagued pre-industrial eras as well — surely the oldest profession traded intimacy as well as sex?

Hertz’s definition of loneliness is based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale devised in 1978, which aims to rate the subjective feeling by asking how often a person feels left out or not close to anyone else. To this she adds a looser interpretation. Loneliness in her view is to mean not just “feeling ignored, unseen or uncared for by those with whom we interact on a regular basis . . . It’s also about feeling unsupported and uncared for by our fellow citizens, our employers, our community, our government.” The problem with such a definition is that it is vast and necessarily subjective — there is no perfect loneliness measure with which to compare the sentiment today with that experienced in the past.

Dehumanising work and the need for fulfilling jobs are themes tackled by both authors. Suzman draws on David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs, writing, “the rise and rise of the services sector may be a testament to our collective creativity . . . but we clearly aren’t that clever when it comes to creating (or rewarding) jobs people are likely to find meaningful or fulfilling.”

Hertz, meanwhile, looks at the creep of technology in the modern workplace, such as electronic surveillance, monitoring workers’ productivity and presenteeism. She tries out a computerised job interview and, answering pre-recorded questions to a camera on her laptop, feels disconnected. Later, Hertz’s performance is analysed by an algorithm picking up on her emotional intelligence, tone of voice and buzzwords. Used by multinationals as a way of sifting through vast numbers of job applications, it is a procedure that makes her feel “surprisingly invisible” despite every gesture and expression being taken as a data point. No doubt Covid-19 will accelerate this trend.

The management of gig workers by app is another problematic development. “Power is being increasingly ceded to technology — not only to hiring algorithms but also to reputational rating mechanisms and robots, to surveillance tools and tracking devices and in turn to those who control these levers,” Hertz writes. “All this is fundamentally alienating.”

Yet sometimes technology is really just a tool. Hertz cites the example of the writer Judith Shulevitz confessing to telling her Google Assistant about an emptiness she could not confide to her husband or therapist. But is this so different to writing in a diary? The pandemic has taught us the value of online communities and connections — especially when the alternative is complete isolation. One man told me that saying goodbye over videoconference to his father before he died in hospital of Covid-19 was surprisingly intimate.

Both authors make an impassioned plea to rethink our working practices. Hertz calls for better protection for insecure workers and greater responsibility from employers. Suzman floats basic income (“apportioning free money to everyone whether they work or not”), “moderating our personal material aspirations by addressing inequality” and challenging the preoccupation with economic growth. After all, work can be a means to “harness our restless energy, purposefulness and creativity”.

Whatever the merits of such ideas, the long view of work is a reminder, as Suzman writes, that while we resist change, ultimately we adapt. If such a sentiment seems lyrical when people are losing their jobs, it may also provide hope.

The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart, by Noreena Hertz, Sceptre, RRP£10, 416 pages

Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, by James Suzman, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 464 pages

Emma Jacobs is the FT’s work and careers columnist

More from FT Weekend

Why loneliness fuels populism

As curbs on socialising return, we need to examine the link between isolation and the politics of intolerance

Ancient case for the 15-hour week

To understand the future of work, look deep into our past, writes anthropologist James Suzman

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article