The loneliness lottery and how to combat it

By Polly Curtis, CEO, Demos 

We live in a state run in silos, and we conceptualise the problems we face in different disciplines: they are about society, economics or politics, each with different levers to pull and stakeholders to engage. But in its final report, the Law Family Commission on Civil Society has identified an essential truth: we don’t live in silos but in complex systems, and at the heart of those systems is not a government department, a sector or a funding stream: it is the human experience.

“If the UK’s economy is to grow, if it is to make meaningful social progress, and establish a new sustainable way of life, then all three of its sectors – public, private and social – must be firing on all cylinders and working effectively together,” the report concludes.

This is the power that could be unlocked through liberating civil society to do its best, to fire up the human experience at the heart of our systems. At Demos, we believe that civil society can not only address specific problems head on, but that its very existence improves the quality of society, in a way that can drive the economy and even improve our political culture.

Because part of the role of civil society is to build the network of relationships that can help protect people from hardship through their lives – and also bring opportunities their way – the activities of civil society organisations help prevent isolation.

The devastating impacts of isolation are now well documented. Extended periods of isolation can be as damaging to people’s health as smoking, research has suggested. But the tentacles of isolation run even deeper through the issues that constrain society, extending from people’s physiology, to their mental health, their families and to their wider prospects in life.

A couple of years ago I sat in a room with 50 social workers and asked them to tell me how they decide, between the dozens of struggling families they work with, which children needed to go into the care system. They thought long and hard about the complex risks they see. Then I asked them about the protective factors, and they soon articulated something important: the question they ask is whether anyone is looking out for that family. How isolated are they? Something as profound as whether a family can stay together can, these social workers agreed, be dictated by whether a neighbour is checking in on them, a relative is nearby to give them a break, or a friend holds them in mind and relieves the pressure by asking something as simple as: “how are you doing?”

It’s not just true for struggling families. The lottery of whether you have living relatives nearby, who are fit and willing to help with school pick-ups, is often the determining factor in your fortunes. Informal childcare is a multi-billion pound booster to the economy.

This isolation lottery also dictates whether you can get a job at all. Different studies have suggested that between 30% and 70% of people rely on social connections to find jobs. One UK study found that having just one more friend in employment increased the probability of an individual moving into work by 15%. That’s why we at Demos we have argued for a different model of work service, that not only finds opportunities for job seekers but also builds connections between them.

Social connections give people protection. Inequality in connectedness is a hidden kind of inequality, shrouded by the shame that those who experience isolation feel, and the blindness of those who don’t.

Civil society’s role in mitigating this inequality is absolutely key. It’s not just the services charities provide, but the connections they build, the isolation they can mitigate, and the personal empowerment that can bring. The charity that helps build connections between volunteers is providing a benefit that is hard to quantify and has an impact that is very difficult to determine. But we know it’s there – and as importantly, we recognise when it’s missing. Without it, society becomes stuck.

Now think about that role back in the wider system. Tackling isolation is not only good for society, but it’s also a driver for economic growth. A strong, growing economy depends on a strong, resilient society that is fuelled by connections that gives it strength to adapt and evolve to changing economic drivers. At Demos, we speak about the Gravitational State, in which the state sees itself as an enabler of stronger communities, not just because they improve people’s qualities of life, but because they also enable economic growth and resilience.

Investment in society and in people is investment in economic growth. But there has forever been a stumbling block here. It has always been hard to evidence the less tangible benefits of investing in civil society, and to make sure that social investment pays back. The Commission calls for a Civil Society Evidence Organisation – perhaps this might be part of the What Works network – and this is a particularly welcome missing piece in the jigsaw. We need to prove the wider benefits of civil society and so give governments the confidence to invest in people.

Civil society can be seen as just another sector, part of the delivery of services to our country. But I prefer the definition used by the Commission on Civil Society reporting today: it is “an expression of the connections that exist between individuals and institutions in every part of our nation”.

Connections fuel communities, which fuel happier, healthier people, who can fuel economic growth, creating a virtuous cycle. The conversation about economic growth is often about infrastructure and investment, but it’s the investment in people, through a strong civil society, that is too often the hidden, forgotten factor.

This piece was written in response to the publication of the report ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’