We need an honest national narrative to end our disconnection crisis

Earlier this month, the BBC launched its new Crossing Divides On the Move initiative. In partnership with travel companies across the UK, the intention was to spark conversations between passengers on some of their seven billion journeys a year across their neighbourhoods and nation — all in an attempt to reduce the stigma and creep of a national epidemic: loneliness, and our broader disconnection from one another.

Virgin Trains designated ‘chat carriages’ and gave out free hot drinks to passengers willing to converse with a stranger. Arriva placed ‘conversation starter’ cards on buses. National Express hosted spoken word poets on their coaches to kick-start discussions. Other companies made special public service announcements inviting people to engage in conversation on their commutes.

Social media’s more humorous side did its thing. Politely asking people to chat to strangers was the epitome of Britishness! Let’s find new people to grumble about the weather with! More dogs on the tube! I wasn’t stressed or anxious before, but I am now you’ve started talking to me!

I have to admit, I feel a pang of responsibility for this. For nine years I’ve been encouraging people to chat to people they don’t know, ever since a chance encounter with an 84-year-old neighbour changed my life and inspired The Cares Family, which I set up to reduce loneliness in anonymous big cities, and to reduce division across social, generational and attitudinal divides. Eighteen months ago, I wrote in an All Party Parliamentary Group report on social integration that “we need to do more to make our transport more sociable. Big organisations like TFL and TfGM can make a start — for example through a “No headphones day” to encourage people to look up and speak to co-travellers.” Mea culpa.

But there’s a very serious side to this disconnection we’re all talking about (or, being British, not talking about): it’s killing us. Loneliness brings on heart attacks, strokes, depression and dementia. It increases our chance of premature death by a sobering 45% — more than obesity and alcohol dependency. If you have a heart attack, there are two lifestyle factors that drastically increase your chance of survival over any other: not smoking, and having relationships that mean something to you. And yet more people are reporting feeling often or always lonely. And it’s not just older people — a study last year found that young people feel loneliness more intensely and more frequently than any other age group.

So loneliness is a personal emotion, and a public health crisis. But it’s also even more serious than that: with clear links between loneliness, addiction, abuse, violence, polarisation and extremism, our withdrawal and disconnection from one another is a major political crisis too, and one which both candidates to be Prime Minister should consider at the very heart of their analyses of the past and visions for the future.

Let’s be honest: taking our headphones off and saying hello to our fellow commuters is not going to fix this crisis, much as lifting our heads from Donald Trump’s Twitter page is not going to remove him from the White House. We need desperately to find more ways to interact and build meaning. So how might society as a whole do more to tackle our loneliness epidemic, and our broader disconnection which has shown itself to be so poisonous?

First, we should do more to celebrate the brilliant work already going on in communities across Britain. From the Chatty Cafes which started in Oldham and are now rolling out in retail spaces across the country; to B:Friend, which started in Doncaster and is now spreading across South Yorkshire; to Xenia in London which brings English learners together with English speakers; and so many more — grassroots organisations are bringing people from different backgrounds together to build connection in a changing world. We need a new national commission to learn from those models, to establish why they have worked so well, and to identify new opportunities to invest in relatable local projects that make such a difference.

Second, government needs to be more radical. The appointment of the Loneliness Minister over a year ago spurred progress, but as Brexit — a symptom of our disconnection and malaise, rather than a cause of it — continues to dominate the political agenda, so our social stitching comes further apart. Government should take seriously my proposal for a 1p charge on self-service transactions to boost initiatives that bring people together, which was picked up in the social integration APPG’s recent ‘Healing the Generational Divide’ report and by media from The Mirror to The Telegraph.

On housing, the next Prime Minister should commit to a massive mixed generation social homes programme to include modern day alms houses with amenities that appeal to and welcome in the public as well as in situ residents. Some of those homes should be reserved for people who grew up in the area in which they are built, to help people to lay down roots in their communities — because the only way to belong is to connect.

Third, in schools — which can be such a gateway to social integration — access to relatable mentors should be the mandated norm rather than the exception. Local social history — of the Blitz, of social liberation, and of migration — should be taught by the people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who made it, helping older and younger people alike to create meaningful bonds with their communities and their heritage, to share stories, to build lasting relationships, and to help people to connect the past to the present to the future.

And if our disconnection from one another is a political crisis as well as a personal and public health issue, we need that type of relatable, honest narrative building at the national level too, because too many people still feel locked out of their own communities, their own citizenship, their own nation.

That narrative should state that as an island nation we’ve built our history on an uncomfortable dichotomy: that while our wealth and power have been built in large part on historical abuses around the world which we need to accept, educate people about and apologise for, at home we have always needed to be open — albeit too often reluctantly — to newcomers to underpin that economic power. Only when we have those honest, vulnerable conversations as a nation, can we all as individuals be more open, more vulnerable with one another, more connected.

Alex Smith is the Founder/CEO of The Cares Family and an Obama Fellow. In June 2019 he edited “Finding connection in a disconnected age”, a pamphlet of stories about community in a time of change, in partnership with Nesta.

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.