‘Disconnection in a connected age’ and how we overcome it to live happier, healthier lives.
Speech to UK Active 2018 National Summit
I want to congratulate my old mate Tom Watson for his inspiring speech earlier, and for sharing the personal journey he’s walked, run and cycled along the way. The last time I saw Tom, some years ago, was, perhaps fittingly, on a sedentary boat on the river Thames. He was half my weight heavier than he is today, and I was half as grey. I guess that tells you something about the power of purpose.
I know Tom because, eight years ago, I also worked in politics. Fresh from campaigning on the first Barack Obama campaign, I returned home to the area I grew up in, in north London, to try to inject some of that hope and change magic into my own community.
Perhaps naively, I became a local council candidate. And on the day the election finally came around, in May 2010 — as I was doing my rounds, knocking on doors, trying to get people to come out and vote––my life changed. My life changed because, behind one of those doors, I met a frail, 84-year-old man named Fred.
Fred told me that he’d love to come out and vote; that he’d never missed an election in his life — but that this time he wouldn’t be making it because he hadn’t been out of his house for three months. He hadn’t spoken to anyone for three months. So he wasn’t up to it: not physically, not mentally, not emotionally. Not today.
Now not somebody willing to give up on a vote, and seeing a wheelchair behind Fred, I cheekily asked him whether he would be comfortable if I wheeled him the 100 yards down the road so that he could perform that democratic right he so clearly valued. And in spite of some initial nervousness after so long behind closed doors, Fred was keen to do so.
As we were out, this 84-year-old man, who I’d just met, really came alive. He started greeting neighbours he’d not seen in months. He smiled widely. He became animated, almost giddy. But there was one thing Fred really wanted — and that was to get a haircut. Because in those three months, alone between four walls, Fred’s hair had become long and greasy — and in his own words he said he felt he’d lost his dignity.
So the next day — having lost my election to a now long forgotten Clegg-mania — I returned to my neighbour’s home, helped him into his wheelchair again and wheeled Fred two hundred yards down the road to the local barber shop.
As we went in, the barber — who I’d been going to for fifteen years, and who Fred had been going to for fifteen years before those previous few months — recognised us both and said: “Oh hello, Alex. Oh, hello, Fred. Oh, Alex, is Fred your grandad?” Fred wasn’t my grandad, of course. I’d just met him the day before. But as Fred opened up even more and shared his life story as he sat in that barber’s chair, I realised that he and I had so much in common.
Like me, Fred had lived in north London for nearly 30 years, and seen it change beyond recognition. Like me, he loved Sinatra and the Rat Pack and had music posters all over the walls of his home. But the thing that really stuck with me is that Fred had set up and run the shop that was my favourite place growing up in Camden Town — the fancy dress shop Escapade. It sold Halloween costumes, and stink bombs, and all the things your parents don’t want you to have when you’re seven.
In that moment, in that barber shop, a place of rare community, I realised there must be thousands of people in our big city like Fred — people with deep roots, lives well lived, and amazing stories to tell, but with few connections — and thousands of people like me, constantly connected via technology but with too few roots in the community.
So in 2011 I set up North London Cares, to bring together young professionals and older neighbours who live side-by-side but too infrequently interact — to share time, laughter and new experiences across the social, generational, digital and attitudinal divides that can leave our cities and our world feeling anonymous, isolating and disconnected.
Eight years later, alongside North London Cares, that little idea has sprouted sibling charities South London Cares, Manchester Cares and now Liverpool Cares. And through The Cares Family, as they’re collectively known, 5,000 older people and 5,000 younger people have now hung out and helped one another — through social clubs like dance parties, ping pong and yoga sessions, digital tech workshops, and Desert Island Discs nights; and through one-to-one friendships bringing some of the outside world in for people like Fred who can struggle to get out, and for people like me who are looking for more connection to the community.
I tell Fred’s story because it’s a microcosm of our time. Because in our rapidly changing world––in which globalisation, gentrification, digitisation, individualism, transience and housing bubbles are transforming our neighbourhoods faster than ever before — we’ve somehow prioritised what’s efficient over what’s important. The result is that, whether through our addictions to work, smart phones and social media, or through the changing faces of our communities and the fraying of our social groups with the passage of time, we are living in an era of deep disconnection, even in a hyper-connected age.
Let me tell you what I mean. On my journey here today, I had ample opportunity to speak to people, to engage. But with my earphones in and my travel card out, I ignored the bus driver even as I climbed aboard his bus and tapped my ticket to his card reader. I bought a coffee, not from my local caff but from a chain store where I paid through a self-service checkout. On the tube, no-one looked me in the eye. And even since I got here I’ve been wedded to my phone, following on Twitter what’s happening right in front of my eyes. I can see some of you doing it right now. It’s easy to laugh, but we’re all guilty of it.
It’s in that context that we’re living in what a BBC documentary called ‘the age of loneliness’ and what many others have called a ‘loneliness epidemic’. It sounds melodramatic — but let me share some stats to illustrate the point. 9 million adults in the UK say they often feel lonely. Two in five people over the age of 65 — two in five — say the TV is their main form of company. 17% of older people haven’t spoken to a friend or relative in a week and 11% haven’t had meaningful human contact in a month. And one in ten GP appointments is taken by an older person with no other condition than that they’re lonely.
But this is not just a later life problem. Quite the contrary. In fact, studies show that young people are at least the second loneliest age group and may even be the loneliest. One in five young mums say they feel lonely “always”. And suicide — suicide — is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in this country.
Loneliness kills. It brings on heart attacks, strokes, depression and dementia. While obesity increases our chance of premature death by up to 20%, and dependency on alcohol by 30%, not having meaningful relationships in our everyday lives increases our chance of early death by a sobering 45%. If you have a heart attack, there are two lifestyle factors that drastically increase your chance of survival over any other: 1) not smoking; and 2) having good relationships that mean something to you.
And that makes sense — because what truly makes us human is not our hunger for growth in GDP or the expansion of ever-more complex computers, systems or nexuses. What makes us human is our compassion for one another — our empathy. Remove the opportunity for that empathy from our everyday lives and we are hollowing out the human experience, and we’re killing ourselves in the process.
Now there are some people who say that loneliness is not a national problem, or not a public health issue; that it’s an individual emotion. I get that, and I know that the Treasury can’t buy us friends and social security can’t give us the experiences that truly bind us. I know that loneliness is subjective, and that disconnection may seem abstract to some people.
But the science is not deniable, and nor are the economics. As well as being heartbreaking for individuals and communities and society at large, disconnection is also unsustainably bad for the state. As well as putting strain on our-already under pressure health service it’s also a gateway to so many other social ills, from addiction to welfare dependency to abuse to crime. And so the cycle continues.
If you’re still not convinced, let me make the business argument. Our disconnection from one another could be costing us £32 billion a year: £5 billion on health services, £12 billion from the loss of productivity, £205 million in the demand placed on policing, £20 million in sickness absence. On the other hand, neighbourliness — connection to one another — already delivers £24 billion in potential savings to the state. So for every £1 spent on initiatives to reduce loneliness, at least £3 is saved to the government.
Now I get that some of you may be thinking, “fine, but today is about activity. It’s about health and fitness supply chains, school activity, and getting the right equipment to the right places.” And I agree. How we keep people healthy is about activity. But more than that, it’s also about interactivity — how we share time and space and new experiences and how we help one another to live not just healthy, liveable lives but lives worth living. And to do that, we need to entirely rethink our connection — our connection to one another, our connection to our communities, our connection to businesses, and our connection to ourselves. And we need to rethink how government, the voluntary sector and the activity sector can better enable those types of interactivity that really mean something.
So let’s talk about social media. Yes, social media has the power to bring us together. From Park Run to Good Gym to sharing pictures of our post-exercise euphoria — many of us have experienced the joy of discovering a new community online. But social media also has the power to pull us apart, to distort truths about ourselves, to market a particular body image, and to keep us passive on sofas, glued to the next meme or envious of the latest holiday cocktail we see on Instagram — instead of being active in those parks or exercising with friends in the local leisure centre, or just being with one another. Because digital interaction — and digital marketing — is only healthy if it’s augmenting and enabling real interaction, not if it’s replacing it.
And let’s talk about work, and specifically wellbeing at work. I’ll start with the obvious: to be more genuinely interactive at work we need to meet face-to-face, we need to pick up the phone instead of sending that email, and we need to feel like we’re contributing and being heard. To the businesses in the room, I encourage you to look inwards at your culture as well as outwards to the market, and to lead by example on getting people to be more interactive. Because we need to change our mindsets to enable our employees to be with one another. We can start by rejecting the old school ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ of painting a school mural in favour of a more human approach that challenges professionals to put aside their skills and re-raise their sensibilities — their humour, their sense of play, their kindness, by people being with people who value their company.
And while we’re at it, perhaps the big supermarkets could abolish the self-service checkouts that drive people to lose that key, familiar interaction every single day. Or if they’re unwilling to do that, how about a 5p levy on every self-service transaction that might just spur culture change just as it did with our plastic bags addiction?
So let’s talk about government. Because while the Treasury can’t call my mum for me, if we’re going to have a truly interactive society the state does need to do its bit — to be less clunky, more human. To be fair, it has already started. The appointment of the loneliness minister and new funding for community groups to bring people together is a step in the right direction.
But we need the whole of government to be a Connecting State. Schools should be incentivised to have older people on their staff because we know that generational divides are widening, and that intergenerational connection is good for us. So local social history could be taught by the people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who made it — because we know relatability is key.
And in a world where, for better and worse, it’s not just what you know but who you know that truly helps people to succeed, welfare should be reformed to prioritise connections over payments alone so that people, through their relationships, can become resilient rather than reliant.
To support that, transport agencies could inspire “no headphones” days; their trains and trams could have book and DVD exchanges; “priority seats” that segregate us should become “community seats” that bring us together. Mixed age housing should be built, with care homes on the same sites as shared office hubs and hairdressers and parks that encourage community so that we can see one another more — because it takes at least two people for one person to feel visible.
And government, and frankly the charity and voluntary sectors, need to adapt their language. Because if Fred had ever felt that I was offering a ‘service’ by escorting him to the barber’s, there’s no way he’d have agreed to it. Fred was a proud man with a rich personality and heritage. He didn’t want to be ‘done to’. He was not my ‘client’ and I was not ‘befriending’ him; neither of us was a ‘beneficiary’ — we were just neighbours.
So commissioners in the room, this should be your guiding principle. Because when did the word “social” come to mean ‘a service of government’ — social housing, social security, social care, social services? These services rarely encourage interaction. In their remoteness, they can prevent it. And the systems that underpin some of those services — press 1 to listen to Greensleeves, press 2 to speak to someone 10,000 miles away, press 3 to be entered into a telephonic abyss, ‘here, fill in this form’ — those systems don’t enable interactivity either. They leave us feeling cold, isolated, distant from our community. So the word “social” should mean people, being with people. I know that’s what people want because evaluations of The Cares Family’s work have shown that while a majority of older people first join us for the activity — the dance parties and the choirs and the boxing nights — they come back for the interactivity with local young people.
And the National Health Service, which we’ve celebrated today, if it’s going to survive into a future with an ageing and growing population, needs to do what it says on the tin. Because it is currently a National Ill Health Service. And thank God it is — because it fixes us when we’re sick. There’s not a person in this room who hasn’t benefited from that, and not a person in this room who wouldn’t fight and fight to help the NHS to survive. But to survive, it needs to do more than fix people up: it needs to be radically proactive in keeping people healthy in the first place — prioritising prevention over cure. That means campaigns to change the culture on sugar. It means attacking problems like loneliness right at the root. It means free gym memberships for those most at risk of heart disease. And it means shifting some budgets from reactive physical health treatments to proactive mental health treatments — to close that gateway to so many of those other social ills.
But because government can’t do it all, let’s also talk about the physical activity sector — your sector — that’s brought us together today. There are people here much more qualified than me to talk about the physical, mental and emotional benefits of activity than I am. I see you up and down the country, every day, building communities through gyms and leisure centres, keeping people of all ages active in our parks, and supporting young people’s health in schools and through extra-curricular activity. Your work is inspiring because it doesn’t just keep us active, but precisely because it keeps us interactive — across lines of social class, across generations, across faith groups. Your work makes up an important part of our national fabric.
This summer, the nation revelled in the power of that togetherness — with a young England team from all backgrounds, happy to be together, positive in their mission, creating 22 new role models for young people. But more than just an example of the power of interaction, that team did something even more special: it helped old friends to reconnect, through Sunday lunchtime BBQs and Wednesday night community screenings from Surrey to Salford to Durham to Devon. It made us sing together, and dance together, and cheer together, and, in the end, cry together. For a moment, even in rocky times, that sense of togetherness became something bigger — a sense of nationhood.
But you already know that, because you are already at the vanguard of that movement. You have mobilised more people to join exercise groups than ever before — to exchange the solitude of the treadmill for the solidarity of the spin class. Your work has brought more BAME people and more people with disabilities into activity than ever before. And you’ve invested in research that has demonstrated the importance of activity in our everyday lives. So you’re good at this!
But your research also reveals that there’s more to do — to get more older people into those communities, more men, more people from the lowest income groups. So the next part of your job is to use the scale of your networks and resources — and the physical space that you have in every community — to focus on where, collectively, you can make the biggest difference. Doing so will be good for your bottom lines — because you have so much more capacity, during evenings and weekends as well as on weekdays. More importantly, it will be good for our collective interaction.
And we need to focus on the power of sport more broadly for that purpose too, and––through cheaper tickets, and more grassroots coaches, and keeping hold of Wembley, and bringing in safe standing so that parents and their children can share active experiences together — to help sport to be about community as well as about competition; about healthy communities as well as healthy people.
Finally, because even sport can’t do it all, let’s talk about ourselves — and what we all as individuals can do to tackle disconnection in our connected age. Because while we are all part of a community — many communities — we’re also responsible for the role we choose to play within those groups, and how active we each are.
So it’s not OK that while three quarters of us believe that being part of a community is important, almost the same proportion admit to not actively taking part. And it’s not OK that while we’re spending more time with our immediate families than ever before we’re spending less time engaging in the world beyond our front doors than ever before. That road — that lack of proactive interactivity — leads us to isolation.
So we all need to take responsibility for being interactive. And we can each start as we leave here today — by taking off our headphones and saying hello to the bus driver; by waving across the road to the hairdresser we visit once a month; by buying our coffee from a human rather than a machine and by asking ‘how’s your day?’; by keeping an eye out for neighbours like Fred with a thousand stories of love and loss, hope and heartbreak, mischief and misadventure to tell. And then we need to broaden that movement to inspire more people to do the same, and more people after them.
So my message is that activity may be what makes life liveable; but it’s interactivity that makes life worth living. Activity may be what boosts the body, but interactivity is what boosts the mind and the matter, what binds us and what defines us.
That interactivity, especially across different life experiences, will not only keep us healthier for longer. It will also help us to keep learning through life. It will reduce crime and addiction and abuse. It will expand the dignity and identity and belonging people feel from employment. It will show us that difference doesn’t have to divide us, but that there’s richness in diversity that can unite us.
Just like it did for me and Fred, and for many of the people you work with, it could set us all on a more connected path. So I’m going to make a personal commitment to take my five a day — five meaningful interactions that will help me feel connected as well as active. I hope that you will work with me to do the same — to put your resources to work, and to help everyone to feel part of our rapidly changing world, rather than left behind by it.