GEMMA ACTON: The world has never been better connected, yet one in four Australians is still lonely

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Gemma Acton
The Nightly
4 Min Read
GEMMA ACTON: The world has never been as connected as cheaply as it is today, yet one in four Australians is still lonely.
GEMMA ACTON: The world has never been as connected as cheaply as it is today, yet one in four Australians is still lonely. Credit: Supplied

The world has never been as connected as cheaply as it is today, yet one in four Australians is still lonely.

Younger Australians have myriad ways at their fingertips through which to contact friends and strangers and still more than one in three consistently feels loneliness.

It’s a sobering — and expensive — reality. The Federal Government puts a $2.7 billion price tag on its cost to our economy due to the mental and physical health consequences and related inefficiencies.

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A UK study by the New Economics Foundations listed the reasons loneliness extracts such a high price from our economy, which ranges from the physical, including days off work due to ailments like heart disease and strokes, to the extra caring work needed to help those experiencing loneliness, to a loss of productivity among those deflated by the condition.

The most costly bucket according to this study, however, was voluntary staff turnover as a direct result of loneliness and its pernicious impact on employee well-being and ability to succeed in a workplace.

We’re not alone in dealing with this scourge, with a recent report from the American Psychiatric Association throwing up similar statistics for the US. It points out that the curse of loneliness is non-discriminatory, and able to affect people of any gender, race, religion, political persuasion and socio-economic cohort. Yet, its societal breadth is also the reason for hope that we might push this issue up the agenda as we’re all bound to know many people who are reeling under its weight.

The misleading aspect of loneliness is that it doesn’t have to relate to being alone. There’s no lonelier feeling than being in a relationship where you’ve stopped connecting with your partner. This makes identifying loneliness very hard to spot — the life of the party showman might be the loneliest person in your orbit.

The economy and personal finances are inextricably linked to — and are often the root cause of — loneliness. The changing nature of work over recent decades has worsened the situation for millions.

Many jobs involve staring at a computer and tapping keyboards to send words and numbers into a void, leaving workers feeling disconnected from colleagues, clients, the overall point of their work and ultimately, the success of their contribution. When the average chief executive in Australia earns 55 times what the average worker earns, where is the incentive to engage and feel directly tied to the business’s earnings outcomes?

And yet, a job is where the majority of Australians spend the majority of their waking hours and the best years of their lives.

The gulf is vastly greater in the US. where chief executives took home 344 times as much as an average worker in 2022. How much the situation has changed is exemplified by the fact that in 1965, the average chief executive was “only” paid 21 times as much as the average worker.

With more workers now belonging to businesses that are behemoths peopled by thousands of staff dotted in various locations, the chance of an employee having a strong connection with the leadership team has become increasingly remote. For many, long gone are the days of sitting across the aisle in the local church from the big boss or your children playing after school together in the neighbourhood.

The cost-of-living crisis has rolled on for more than two years now with its cumulative impact hitting more households the longer it persists. Many social activities cost money, hence if you’re having to decline a sandwich with friends or invitations to a local show as it’ll stretch the budget too far, the threat of loneliness is exacerbated at a time when you need support and solidarity more than ever.

A new survey from the corporate regulator ASIC says 40 per cent of people feel shame or embarrassment at having to admit they need financial help.

Angela, a Hobart-based mother-of-three struggling with daily expenses, recently appeared on a 7NEWS special, bravely admitting she hates when her kids are invited to birthday parties given the cost expectations involved that she knows she won’t be able to cover.

She also worries about when they host playdates, thinking, “Do I have enough food to give the kids a snack?”

There are many free social activities from book clubs to going for a walk with a friend to joining up with a local charity clean-up day. At a time when so many people are feeling the pinch, it’s incumbent on all of us to be sensitive to not creating any additional feelings of loneliness due to setting the financial bar too high for social suggestions.

I read in my local community magazine this week of a push to open a Men’s Shed in the area. These are welcoming spaces to turn up and carry out your own activities like woodworking or projects like repairing a bicycle.

Above all, it’s about creating a sense of community where attendees can be in a place alongside others who are also seeking some sort of connection.

Loneliness may be expensive to our economy but it is absolutely free for each of us to do our own small part to pull someone around us out of its grinding grip.

Gemma Acton is the Seven Network’s finance editor.

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