Doaa Shabbir: Forging communities based on togetherness is the solution to our loneliness epidemic

How can we restore community and togetherness in a modern society increasingly characterised by social isolation? Doaa Shabbir, writer and school student in Glasgow, explores this issue, and finds changing the nature of work is key.

AT THE General Assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in New Zealand this year, the overwhelming conclusion from discussions was that we are living in an increasingly politically and socially divided era. With growing populist rhetoric and the international rise of identity politics, it is safe to say that our ideas about community are being reshaped, and perhaps dangerously.

However, the concept of community exists in different realms when viewed with different mindsets. How we perceive the world around us is not only shaped by our realities, but by our aspirations, emotional attachments, and level of trust of those around us. Social fragmentation, a hideous by-product of modernity, arises when sentiments of loneliness become more prevalent than those of genuine empathy and warmth towards our communities.

A study by Virginia Tech University on the trailer park projects of America (The Social Construction of Poverty and The Meaning of Deprivation: An Ethnographic Exploration of Mobile Home Park Residents) outlines different psychological constructs of poverty held by its residents, categorising perceptions of community into various main groups. The Strangers, those who viewed the park as a dangerous place worse than their previous state claimed that they “can’t trust anybody”, relying on their emotional detachment from the place they live as a way to cope with their dissatisfaction.

Sadly, these attitudes may be far from dissimilar to those many in Scotland hold, and these experiences may match up to life in our neighbourhoods, workplaces, and schools. The NHS report “Social isolation and loneliness in Scotland: a review of prevalence and trends” showed 73 per cent of survey respondents felt not very much or not at all involved in their local communities, with the social stigma of low income and a lack of household resources especially making socialisation especially difficult in many cases. According to the report “Vanishing Britain”, the disappearance of the local community through its loss of shops and post offices is the biggest concern of those over 55.

The rise of the gig economy does not help - as workers struggle to find a stable source of employment, the sense of a strong united workforce and the community that comes with it diminishes. As Britain’s emerging “Generation Rent” finds themselves increasingly unsure of having a place to stay and public land becomes increasingly scarce, has our perception of a sense of belonging been distorted, or worse, completely lost?

A policy briefing from the Mental Health Foundation in conjunction with Age Scotland finds that 24 per cent of adults over the age of 65 feel depressed because of social isolation, and this “chronic loneliness” can be as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The number of older people aged 65+ with depression is expected to rise from 3,983 to 4,698 by 2025 and as we grow further apart, technology seems to be replacing those much needed inter-personal connections. 8 per cent of people state that TV is their main source of company over the festive period and 6 per cent of older adults spend Christmas alone, a time apparently emblematic of togetherness and happiness.

It can be argued that considering individual experiences hold greater qualitative strength than an examination of wider patterns. Despite the seemingly undesirable context, The Survivors of the trailer park, those who saw the park as the permanent home they were grateful for, stated they gained a sense of belonging through connective comparison and acknowledging a shared vision for their area. While others were inclined to hold negative ideas about the park due to the criminal activity in the area; The Survivors were content, as it represented a place where good-hearted people strived together to create a better future.

READ MORE: What are the roots of the mental health crisis?

In a sense, we are all survivors of a range of social and political wrongs as well as rapid transformations of our environments. The dynamism of Scotland during the political turbulence of the past decade is almost unparalleled. Never before has identity been such an immediate topic, with the independence referendum mobilising a whole new political community, dramatically increasing levels of youth participation. It is possible for us to imagine a country where this engagement leads to the formation of various groups, and the encouragement of the creation of spaces in which individuals can collectively reflect on their communities at large, therefore binding them. The question is how this potential can be translated to affect peoples’ everyday lives.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi tied human satisfaction to the concept of zhì, meaning social order, believing that the way to achieve a cohesive sense of community was through a people having definitive roles and secure skills. Through the positions of labour allocated to individuals according to their strengths, they would be able to work efficiently as well as take pride in the sense of collectivity within them. What this means for current life is protecting trade unions, ensuring jobs are less monotonous, improving working conditions, and maintaining our valuable working communities. Work should reward skill and hard work proportionately and accurately.

Prior to the era of Thatcher’s Tory austerity and worker devaluation, mining communities created strong social networks and fostered trust amongst their members. Sociologist John Goldthorpe reflects on village he grew up in, stating that the strong, “occupational culture” shared in the mining community meant that people discussing mining in social gathering, shared work ethics and values, and a feeling of obligation from young workers to not engage in drugs or alcohol to show reverence to older miners. These people were not only proud of their work, but they were also proud of the wider support and empathy present in the society they lived in.

READ MORE: The personal is the political: Activism and mental health

Now contrast that with the exhausted, discouraged workers of today and the employment orphans of the gig economy. The image is grim, to say the least. Trade Union UNISON reports that a care worker does 25 hours a week of work for around £12000  per annum; however, a proposal from the local council which would only enable her to work 14 hours a week meant that if it the council went ahead, she would lose £6000 of her income a year. On call centre work, trade union leader John McInally likens the working environment to those of the “nineteenth century”. Placed in separate units, their movements “regulated by the computers”, and at times only allowed to go to the toilet if they “put their hands up”, the situation seems to be suddenly restrictive and at times, dehumanising.

The new spirit of capitalism is truly alive. In response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s criticism of the Tory government’s systematic neglect of those in most unstable employment, Theresa May maintained the conservative trope that “working hard” instead of welfare, is the “best route out of poverty”. Debatably an ironic stance, from someone who places such a strong emphasis on supposed unity. The word “together” was heard 16 times in her speech at the Conservative party conference.

But British people have never been working so hard, or so relentlessly. Further indications to firms allowing them to exploit workers as they wish under the pretext of hard graft is not what is currently needed. What is needed instead is the identification and rewarding of skills; to build community which encourages a fluid exchange of knowledge with which to implement these skills.

READ MORE: New mental health strategy must tackle root causes and be tied to reducing economic inequality, experts argue

One key element of providing gainful skill-based employment for Common Weal is seeing increased value in the creative industries. Providing Citizen’s Income for aspiring artists, for example, is an incentive which supports freelancers and allows them to pursue their passions without worrying about their financial circumstance. Talent which is priceless to our society not only becomes more accessible to the public, but the radical idea of having the ability to build a livelihood purely around an individual’s interests has a unique uplifting power.

Supporting skill-based development in work not only rewards a specific skill but encourages a broader acquirement of skills. This can make our working lives more flexible, adaptable and interesting, potentially allowing for job switching and sharing. 

We don’t need to be slaves to an impersonal, gruelling work system. We don’t need to isolate ourselves from our communities or do jobs which dehumanise us. There are more promising and more exciting systems out there. But in order to even see these as a possibility, the government needs to stop making what is their responsibility towards their citizens a lengthy topic of debate on the morality of our working population.

Creating opportunities for employment which focuses on independence and self-determination is the foundation for a future which puts people first, giving them the crucial power with which they can decide their futures. As this allows for a society which is empowered instead of drained, cohesive, happy communities will naturally form. It is with this power that lies in “togetherness” that the loneliness epidemic of neoliberalism can start to be cured.

Picture courtesy of Juicyrai

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