The Loneliness Economy

April 25, 2023
Darryl Cooke

Executive Chairman

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Leaders should help reduce demand in the ‘loneliness economy’

It’s no surprise that the social epidemic of loneliness sweeping across many parts of the world is becoming a distinct investment theme.

Fund managers are racing to identify patterns and growth opportunities stemming from the erosion of physical communities, increasing isolation and aging populations.

Like all of us, they can see a dramatic shift in how humans connect, communicate, share experience, consume products and live their lives.

A recent article from the Financial Times focused on the underlying drivers in what is increasingly known as the ‘loneliness economy’.

To me the moniker suggests that it is an issue to be managed and monetised rather than addressed and reversed.

An ‘opportunity’…but also a fundamental threat

Whilst the FT article explores the growth dynamics of this rapidly emerging market; it also hits the nail on the head when it states that isolation and aloneness pose a major macroeconomic and societal threat.

Within a generation many of us have moved from physical socialising to online streaming…shared workspaces to work from home.

This is having a profound impact on how we meet, interact, form friendships, maintain communities and support each other.

Rising loneliness is a social concern that can lead to depression and suicide but also accelerate the onset of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer.

The toll on our wellbeing is creating major healthcare pressures, reducing productivity and shrinking the labour force.

In short, mass loneliness is steadily unpicking many of the threads that underpin both our health and wealth.

Are robot pets really the answer?

The ‘loneliness economy’ now spans everything from solo living spaces and single portion food products through to transactional human interactions (‘Rent a Friend’ app) and pets (both real and robotic).

The fact that markets are focusing on growing demand created by this pernicious issue ought to be a wakeup call to those with the motivation and means to address it from the other side…prevention.

Paradoxically, this includes businesses. I strongly believe all organisations should take time to understand the complex nature of loneliness and how it manifests within their workforce and wider communities.

In addition to the moral dimension, there is a strong self-interest angle here.

Research from 2017 conducted by Co-op and New Economics Foundation put the cost of loneliness to employers in the UK alone at £2.5 billion a year due to its impact on health and wellbeing, productivity and employee churn.

Because it is not a medical issue requiring specialist intervention, it is beholden on all of us to seek to resolve it by reviving community and sometimes just encouraging conversation.

You never know where a conversation will lead.

It’s often overlooked but, left unchecked, loneliness will continue to erode the bonds that hold our societies and economies together.

Leaders need to step up

Leaders have an important role to play. They can put loneliness front and centre, building awareness in their organisations and their communities.

Where there is a will, it is not hard to address through awareness and action.

If business made the relatively small step of factoring loneliness into their ESG policies, collectively it could play a huge part in helping create the connections, places and spaces that are vital to tackling this growing epidemic.

It’s vital we foster truly engaged, positive and supportive cultures in our own businesses with social interaction at the core.

Ask yourself:

  • Are words like ‘collaboration’, ‘empathy’ and ‘togetherness’ lived values, or just something you’ve stencilled on the wall?
  • Have you created an environment in which talking about vulnerability and challenges is seen as positive, not career-limiting?
  • Crucially, have you empowered your organisation to look outward and tackle loneliness in your communities…particularly the square mile around you?

Encouraging and facilitating more engagement with each other and wider society will benefit your culture and business performance in so many ways.

Here at gunnercooke we’ve developed a framework to stimulate and support social interaction and professional collaboration amongst Partners. We’re also committed to extending this into the communities which surround us.

One way we’re doing this is by taking the bold step of creating a network of purpose-led independent bookshop, cafe and events spaces in the cities where we have an office.

These community interest companies are designed not only to directly encourage social interaction and raise awareness of the issue, but also generate profits that can support other organisations committed to tackling social isolation.

The first ‘House of Books and Friends’ has just opened in Manchester and the response we’ve had from a wide range of stakeholders has been fantastic.

People are intrigued, inspired and it’s stimulating more conversations about how other businesses can help address loneliness.

It’s our small contribution to confronting this big issue.

I implore other leaders to look at how they can also help reduce demand in the ‘loneliness economy’.

For more insights listen to the Inspiring Leadership Podcast here.