Living in a Fragmented Society – What Happened to Community?

Living in a Fragmented Society – What Happened to Community?

Last month I wrote a piece about the so-called loneliness epidemic that’s silently sweeping the capital. Research suggests that London is the loneliest city in both the UK and Europe, with 52% of Londoners admitting to feeling lonely. Perhaps what’s most interesting is that it’s young people - people between the ages of 18-34 - that are suffering the most. So much for the idea that loneliness is an affliction of the elderly…

This ‘epidemic’ isn’t something that’s widely talked about, beyond the realm of abstract statistics that grab headlines from time to time. Loneliness isn’t something that I’d talk to my friends, housemates or coworkers about, but maybe that’s something that keeps it perfectly in its place. Why stay silent? I guess no one wants to admit that they’re lonely; as we get older, barriers and bravado shield us from presumed assumptions that there must be something wrong with us if we feel alone. But - newsflash - you’re not alone in feeling lonely.

It strikes a discordant note, this prevalence of loneliness, because on the surface we seem so connected. Internet, social media, smartphones… we can connect with anyone anywhere at the touch of a button. So why do we feel lonely?

Technology

There’s an obvious irony to the idea that the technological means of making us more connected are actually driving us further apart. We’ve conquered bygone limitations of time and distance only to find that there’s much more to the recipe for connectedness.

While there’s a lot to be said in its favour, the pitfalls of constant online communication are easy to see. Offline interactions take a backseat to the buzzing mobile phones we’ve become conditioned to check every 2 minutes. We operate in controlled spaces at odds with the authenticity of real life human interactions, where text and emojis can never carry the nuances of human speech, where screens can never replicate the feeling of face-to-face interactions. Our online facades - Facebook, Instagram, et al. - are constructed spaces that display our ideal selves - can we really expect authentic human connectedness to grow here?

At the end of the day, human companionship can never be fully experienced through text and screens - how many of us, how often, are working on the assumption that it can?

Geographical Mobility

We’re a lot more geographically mobile than we used to be. It’s not unusual now for people to move between cities - and even countries and continents - for education, work or relationships. A natural byproduct of that is that less people are putting down roots in a fixed location, thus finding themselves great distances from family and friends.

Decline of Local Offline Communities

It’s a long-talked about phenomena, but one that bears worth mentioning: overarching cultural shifts have led to the decline of the Church as an institution and community focal point over the past few decades. Whatever other feelings you may have, for a long time bodies like the Church played an integral role in bringing people together in a geographical location, and maintaining a sense of connection between residents of an area. It’s not so much about religion as it is about local community. The Church’s decline, together with an increase in geographical mobility and rise of technology, has left a large void in terms of local, face-to-face community.

That’s not to say that offline communities are entirely extinct today. Whilst at university I certainly felt part of a community - it was easy to meet new people and be part of something. But it was largely temporary, and exclusive to a status I held for a short time. As a young professional in London, those ready made location-based communities just don’t exist in the same way. One has the opportunity to find a place for oneself in interest or hobby-based groups, but there’s still a space for permanent, inclusive communities that put down roots in a place.  

Time Poverty

As the old proverb states: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And probably a lonely boy, too. British employees work the longest hours in Europe - a depressing fact in itself before you factor in long commutes and other such things that suck away one’s waking hours. With more and more people stuck in ‘Burnout Britain’, working in excess of 48 hours a week, time poverty seems to be a real contributor to feelings of loneliness and social isolation. With less and less free time in which to build and maintain social connections, it’s no wonder Londoners are feeling lonely!


These handful of points no doubt scratch the surface of what underpins widespread loneliness in cities like London, but they’re starting points for blueprinting solutions. Is it as straightforward as “put down your mobile phone” or “create more local communities”? Probably not, and in 2016 these tasks aren’t as straightforward as we’d like them to be, anyway. However, if we can be aware of how technology might be holding us back, or of the need for more face-to-face communities, we can make steps towards feeling connected again.


Written by Grace Waters

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