As technology and social networks progressively offer to connect us, an apparently related increase in loneliness is being treated as a public health issue. In fact, “loneliness has reached epidemic proportions”, and the young and fit are increasingly affected. As a result, interesting views on the future of loneliness are being vocalised.
However, when we worry about the future of loneliness amongst the young, we risk disregarding how much it already affects the elderly. It might seem less alarming that the old are increasingly lonely, but should it be? Certainly, the young are the future, but with our ageing populations, the old are also the future.
Through my own use of sharing platforms which facilitate and encourage engagement between generations, I’ve met individuals who recounted the convivial and accomplished lives they’d had. Gratefulness towards their past made it harder to digest the accounts of their present struggle. Their ‘golden years’ had not proved so golden. The gold had been seized by budget cuts and illness. Moments of joy now appeared in places where they didn’t feel welcome, or weren’t physically able to get to.
Recent campaigns to end loneliness have been hard hitting, and so will encourage us to take greater action. But other than donating to charities like Age UK, what action can we take to reduce loneliness when resources, such as care workers and helplines, which have traditionally helped address the issue, are also being reduced?
It appeared that the trend of greater sharing between peers would be the solution. This trend is now described as the sharing economy, and its poster boys are Airbnb, where peers share their spare rooms, and Uber, where peers can essentially provide a taxi service to each other.
The most prominent concern about the sharing economy has been whether it encourages genuine sharing, or if peers just look for opportunities to profit from each other. However observers of the sharing economy have also pointed out that it’s less inclusive than it makes itself out to be. It is becoming apparent that the tech-savy middle class are participating and benefiting the most from sharing economy services.
What this means is that the sharing economy is not evolving to benefit older individuals who are maybe less familiar with modern technology, but are more in need of a society where we care and share. The elderly are one of the many groups in need of a fairer sharing economy.
But the sharing economy does not have to only benefit certain groups within society. The underlying principles and technology of the sharing economy can and must be used to benefit all groups in society. This requires platforms designed (or redesigned) to facilitate sharing amongst groups with different needs and capacities, and to encourage social rather than solely economic motivations for sharing.
To achieve this we should make it easier for people to perceive the impact they can have on an elderly person’s wellbeing simply by helping them with some gardening (through Streetbank), giving them a lift somewhere (through Liftshare), stopping for a chat whilst on a jog (through Goodgym), or sharing a meal (through Grub Club or Casserole Club).
Raising awareness of the impact that sharing can have on individuals could help, but it’s unlikely to be enough considering the scale of the emergency. For that reason it might be necessary to take greater, more innovative action. For example, the government and other service providers could maybe propose mechanisms to help incentivise and recognise contributors ( in the the form of subsidies or digital badges?). Behavioural insights might also encourage us to put a greater spotlight on the 13.8m people already volunteering regularly in the UK, as information about what our peers are doing can exert a strong influence on us to modify our behaviour .
Work around facilitating trust between strangers will also remain important, which is why identity verification services being developed by the government may prove a huge step forward. Lastly, as Sharing Economy UK has urged, better fitting insurance products and tax policies should also encourage more pervasive sharing.
Certainly, adapting the sharing economy so it can better serve the elderly will prove valuable as well as necessary. But even though I’ve focused here on the wider changes needed for the sharing economy to support our ageing population, ‘smaller’ individual actions should not be undervalued. If we all help each other in small ways, the aggregate impact is great. Indeed the voluntary sector is already currently valued at £100-£200bn, and as Ali Clabburn has pointed out, if the sector could “use the lessons and tech from the sharing economy and scale – it would be huge for society”.
So if you can, offer a lift to help families get together this festive season, or invite a neighbour over for a mulled wine. Good things can come in small actions.
Photo by Victoria Boyle.
 Sundararajan, A, (2015), speech at Ouishare Fest 2015, as quoted in http://blog.liftshare.com/business/top-8-quotes-from-the-ouishare-fest-2015
 Parsons, A, (2014)’Putting the ‘sharing’ back in to the sharing economy’:http://www.sharing.org/information-centre/articles/putting-%E2%80%98sharing%E2%80%99-back-sharing-economy
 Makwana,R, (2015), ‘Excluded communities and the future of sharing’: http://www.sharing.org/node/480
 Balaram, B, (2015), ‘Toward a fairer sharing economy’: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2015/11/towards-a-fairer-sharing-economy/
 Pick, F, (2012), ‘Building trust in peer-to-peer marketplaces: an empirical analysis of trust systems for the sharing economy’: http://www.francescapick.com/collaborative-consumption-trust-p2p-thesis
 Social Research and Evaluation division, Department for Transport, (2011), ‘Behavioural Insights Toolkit’, p.49: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/3226/toolkit.pdf
 Haldane, A, (2014), ‘In giving, how much do we receive? The social value of volunteering’: http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/speeches/2014/speech756.pdf
Author Lucie Boyle