Faces look ugly when you’re alone

We’ve got one big collective problem, and it’s getting worse. It’s called loneliness and isolation. There just happened to be two separate articles about it which popped up in my feed today.

The NPR story shared some fairly shocking statistics about loneliness. Nearly half of people surveyed by Cigna said they feel alone or left out. Just over half said nobody knows them very well. Slightly over half also said they feel like when people are with them, they’re not really with them–suggesting a sense of isolation even within relationships. And two out of five respondents said they lack companionship, feel isolated, and their relationships aren’t meaningful.

The other article, called “The Shut-In Economy” was a really good read about the rise of a mind-boggling number of services people used to do themselves that now make it possible for people to essentially become hermits. From grocery and meal delivery to services that pick up our dirty laundry and later return it back in our drawers, clean and folded, there is virtually nothing we can’t have done for us by someone else. We never have to leave our houses, assuming the income to pay for it, of course.

In many ways, the NPR article ties in very well with the second, particularly because young people are most likely to feel isolated and lonely. They’re also the most likely to use services to do their work for them. Loneliness and isolation can and do affect people of any age and income bracket, but I think the problem is worst in the youngest generation because so many of their connections are digital and they’ve spent most of their lives online.

I thought for a long time that by waiting to get smartphones for my kids, I would prevent that sense of isolation. But of course, that was a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do situation: I have been isolated myself for most of their childhoods. I desperately craved social interaction but was stuck at home, so I got the interaction through digital communication instead. I was a pretty early adopter of the Internet: I first got online in 1995, where I met friends from all over the world in Usenet and Listserve groups.

Somehow I knew that digital connections were a very poor substitute for real life ones and I wanted to keep my kids away from it as long as possible. But because I myself was already isolated and depressed, I didn’t know how to create those face-to-face interactions for them instead.

A weird thing happens when you isolate yourself and live your life online: the world shrinks. You know you’re vaguely unhappy, but the thought of going out seems daunting. You tell yourself you’re more comfortable at home anyway. You start to think people out there will think you’re too weird and unlikeable, so you just stay home. And then you lose confidence in your social skills, which is self-perpetuating the longer you do it. But the same is not true online; those are the people who get you. Thus perpetuating the cycle.

There are a couple of interesting issues to unpack with all the home delivery services, though. Of course they facilitate that avoidance of the outside world. But many of the people who use them (as mentioned in the article) are young people who have jobs that burn them out and barely give them time to do much more than go home to sleep. Obviously if you only get an hour of free time a day, things like going to the pharmacy or stocking your fridge are going to be challenging. These people can afford to outsource this work, but they do so to free up more time to work, not to spend time with friends.

This brings up the other point, that this is also a class issue. The people who are doing food and package delivery and Instacart and dog-walking services often cannot afford these services themselves. Being able to utilize such services itself reflects a certain level of income and status.

Many of the delivery service workers are people who are otherwise shut out of the traditional economy: moms who need flexible schedules, people who lost a job and never got another one, those who retired but couldn’t afford to stay retired. Which in turn brings me to something in an earlier post that I said I’d discuss: the gig economy.

All of these people are members of the gig economy. As far as I know (though I could be wrong), most of them are contractors rather than permanent employees. They have no benefits, no job security, not even a guaranteed minimum number of hours. Because I’ve been a freelance writer for most of the past 10 years or more, I already knew that the vast majority of contractors work way more than 40 hours a week to earn a full-time income. You never know when a project will abruptly end, which is especially true when working for a startup company that delivers goods and services.

You can’t relax with a life like that. Despite the fact that many such contractors say they enjoy the freedom of scheduling their own days, they also say they can’t take days off without worrying they won’t have enough money to pay the bills. I believe many of these people would rather have one full time job that provides a little bit of flexibility and pays enough to live on.

There’s the other aspect of all these contract and freelance workers who are part of the gig economy: they’re responsible for paying their own taxes, which are higher than they would be if they had the exact same job working as a payroll employee. If you’re making $8-15 an hour driving an Uber or delivering food or doing odd jobs for people on TaskRabbit, are you really going to be able to set aside 30 percent of those earnings to pay the tax man? Chances are that you’re barely getting by as it is, let alone able to save that kind of money for taxes.

And the government always gets their money. You can avoid them for about 5-7 years maximum from what I’ve read, but if you don’t pay them at all, you will eventually go to jail, especially without a steady paycheck for them to garnish. It’s not hard to predict that many of these people working in the gig economy are going to wind up in major debt to the government with no way to pay it off.

You can look at the increased rates of loneliness and isolation along with the rise in the gig economy and easily see the problems that are already beginning to appear in our country’s social fabric. When you’re isolated, you don’t know or trust your neighbors. It’s even easy to see how our president used that growing fear of outsiders to get elected.

But I think there’s a bigger issue at play here that should not be overlooked. Those who are lucky enough to have jobs are often worked half to death. If you want to have a work-life balance, you give up a substantial amount of money. Total dedication to the job first is the only way to really make a lot of money and climb the corporate ladder.

And this issue isn’t getting any better over time. Many stories like this one in The Atlantic say that even though the economy “officially” recovered from the 2008 recession, the workforce is now more unequal, poorer, and sicker than before. If you happen to be lucky enough to be on the fast track for high earnings and career success, there’s a sense of precariousness to it; one wrong move and you might not ever bounce back.

But the secret to their success often involves the ugly E word: exploitation. There’s no way people can give their whole lives to an employer without help, which fortunately they can afford. I truly do think that most people don’t believe they’re exploiting the people they hire; they don’t have time to think about those ramifications. The real exploiters are the companies who take a cut of the earnings of these odd-job workers, while giving nothing in return other than the short-term chance to earn a little cash. The Upworks who take 20 percent of their freelancer’s earnings (who then still have to pay taxes on it as well.)

Still, there’s no way around the fact that when we outsource work to others, they’re usually not getting a fair wage. They’re not getting any of the benefits that are part of a just society, like health insurance, paid sick time, vacation time, retirement plans. Due to the irregular and unstable nature of their work, they’re usually screwing over their futures in advance.

I’m not naive enough to see this as a rich vs poor kind of issue. The workaholic young people devoting all of their lives to their jobs may have things like money and health insurance, but no time to take advantage of either one. Both the wealthy workaholics and the struggling gig-economy workers are isolated, lonely and worried about the future, because what they’re doing is not sustainable in either case. It’s like being on a treadmill that keeps speeding up.

It’s the powers that be, that tiny handful of individuals at the very top, who are making the decisions that squeeze workers at all levels. Obviously the workers with the high-paying jobs have more resources, which can help shield them from future catastrophes if they save and spend carefully. But people in constantly-exhausted survival mode aren’t usually the best planners.

We should all be looking more closely at the fact that the safety net is eroding for everybody. Most of us are actually on the same side, no matter how much certain voices try to pit us against each other.

The fact that we’re becoming lonelier and more isolated is a factor that can combine with the loss of economic security to make our society worse as a whole. But I want to believe that we’ll find a way to collectively fight back.

As for myself, I’m looking to get out of the gig economy as my primary income as soon as I can. In doing so, I will also become less isolated. But I can’t only count on making friends with people at work either, so I’m going to have to make intentional efforts to make real, face-to-face connections with people offline.

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