We talk about ‘the local community’, but in so many places there is little reality to the concept. So many people hardly know their neighbours and now only rarely does the ‘neighbourhood’ operate as a ‘support group’ of a kind that makes a real difference. Contrast this with the African saying that “it takes a village to bring up a child”.
And yet social support is vital. A recent report has revealed that ‘social isolation’ reduces life expectancy by as much as smoking and drinking, so that people who lack strong relationships are, amazingly, 50% more likely to die in any period of seven and a half years than those who have a strong support network. (Research by Timothy Smith of Brigham young University, Utah, published in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine, July 2010)
How widespread is a detached, isolated existence? 11% of women and 18% of men recently reported having a ‘severe lack of social support’ (English Health Survey analysis, quoted in the December 2009 Young Report, . 89) and about one million people say they have literally no-one to turn to and no-one who appreciates them (Young Report, p 87). 21% of people aged between 35 and 44 report that they feel lonely a lot of the time (survey of 2,000 people by Relate, published September 2010). Meanwhile, nearly half of older people – about 4.6 million of them – consider television their main form of company and over 500,000 older people even spend Christmas Day alone.
Amongst younger people, a recent survey found that 22% of those aged between 16 and 24 said that they feel isolated ‘most of the time’, while 11% feel "like an outcast". A massive 54% of them "rarely" or "never" speak to people over the age of 40 in their local community, and 68% say the same for people over 60. Martina Milburn, chief executive of The Prince's Trust, which undertook the survey of 2,226 youngsters, says: "It is a tragedy that so many young people feel separated from the people around them. Being part of a community and interacting with a mix of people is a crucial part of a young person's development" (Prince's Trust YouGov Index, January 2010). Meanwhile, Sarah Brennan, chief executive of Young Minds, said: “The young people we work with tell us that talking to hundreds of people on social networks is not like having a real relationship”. (Quoted in The Times, 14 December 2009). As for children, a survey of 760 parents and children found that two thirds of children prefer to sit in front of the television or computer on their own than to play with other children (Mintel Survey, October 2004).
It is also noteworthy that isolation can equally be a feature of 'nice' areas as 'deprived' ones. Uturn UK's own doorstep survey of 100 homes in Harborne, a high-priced and pleasant area of Birmingham (July 2011) found that:
- 17% admitted that they experienced loneliness sometimes or most of the time
- 22% experienced anxiety
- 16% experienced depression
- 36% expereinced at least one of the above
- 24% said that, were they to fall ill, there was no-one in their street who they thought would give them practical support
- 69% said there was not a community spirit in their street
- 98% said they would welcome an increase in community spirit in their street.
Social fragmentation, isolation and loneliness (or 'anomie') are on the increase everywhere. In a seminal 2008 study of Britain commissioned by the BBC and using data from BBC radio areas, Professor Danny Dorling and team from the University of Sheffield Geography Department established a 'loneliness index' and charted its movement in every decade since 1971. The study found that in every single one of 45 Radio areas, loneliness has been on the increase. The report:
"paints a picture of Britain that has been segregating and polarising in recent decades in terms of where different demographic and socio-economic groups live. The evidence presented suggests that British society has been moving towards demographic segregation and economic polarisation, social fragmentation and political disengagement since 1971. The data and analysis presented here suggests that the social glue and cohesion has been weakening and that Britain has been steadily moving towards a slightly more atomised society with each decade that passes. These trends of social fragmentation have been accompanied by increasing levels of political disaffection, which are currently at the highest historical levels recorded since voting rights were given to all adults. There have also been widening geographical divisions in political disengagement". (p35, Changing UK: The way we live now.)
A fragmented, atomised society may seem normal now, but it is not how Britain once was, nor how many other countries are now. A letter to a British newspaper said this:
"I broke down on a main road outside Oxford today. When I tried to flag 92 cars down to ask for help, not a single one even slowed. A month ago I was in Harare and the same thing happened; 11 drivers out of 11 asked if they could help. Compared to Africa, we are a broken society in terms of caring for one another at times of need" (letter from Tom Benyon, The Times, 6 April 2010).
It can only be imagined how much social isolation is contributing to such social problems as depression, addictions of all kinds, anxiety, eating disorders, poor parenting and so on. All these are on the increase and in many cases dramatically so, as is anti-social behaviour. Local communities would once have offered a sense belonging, significance and shared values, which at once supported and guided each individual. Social isolation diminishes both the individual and society as a whole and gives rise to a host of problems.
But we also want to say that community is not just ‘about’ curing social ills. It is the very ‘stuff’ of life, the heart of fulfilment, purpose and joy, that we take our place in a community of people that expresses our capacity for relationship, enjoyment together, mutual care and belonging. And if a major theme of our Christian tradition is to ‘love thy neighbour’, it is difficult to do this when you hardly know who your neighbour is!