This OECD Forum 2019 background note will be used to prepare speakers on the panel Debate over Lunch: The Pressure of Modern Life, taking place at the OECD headquarters from 13:30-13:30 on Monday, 20 May. Join the Forum Network to comment and help inform the upcoming debate and, whether you're with us in Paris or watching online, let us know what you think of the session!
As it permeates every aspect of our professional and private life, digital technology creates unpreceded opportunities: we can quickly connect with people around the world, keep up with world events and voice opinions to influence positive change. But the digital revolution is also transforming our relationship to others, and a growing number of people are feeling isolated in this hyper-connected world.
Often disregarded, loneliness is becoming a reality of modern life. It is particularly prevalent in the West, where urbanisation weakens social bonds and disrupts traditional household structures. For instance, the percentage of single-person households has doubled in the last 50 years in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and Japan. While social connections are becoming scarcer, the quality of these relationships is also declining. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019, our reliance on technology has negative impacts on empathy (online connections are up to six times less empathetic as face-to-face conversations), and plays a key role in intensifying feelings of anxiety and misunderstanding. Policy shapers are now recognising loneliness as a “health epidemic”, acknowledging its significant toll on well-being and mental health.
The pervasiveness of technology is another factor that puts pressure on modern citizens. The internet has distorted the boundaries between work and private life, and workers feel the need to be accessible at all times. Exchanges are short and motivated by self-interest, while decisions are made more rapidly and frequently than ever, often causing decision fatigue. Companies value productivity and output, sometimes to the detriment of mental health and workplace well-being. In addition, as modern societies move away from more traditional careers and life cycles, the lack of structure can spawn anxiety, and the “become who you want to be” mentality increases the pressure to succeed. In fact, the Prince’s Trust’s 2019 Youth Index denounces unprecedented high levels of stress and anxiety among young people, with nearly half feeling inadequate and anxious about the future.
With isolation, decision fatigue, and the pressure to succeed causing high levels of mental distress for so many, addressing these issues has become a societal and economic imperative. Mental health problems are now affecting an estimated 700 million people worldwide, and the World Health Organisation reports that depression is set to become the second leading cause of disability by 2020. These issues often lead to loss of productivity, early retirement and higher rates of unemployment: the OECD estimates the total cost of mental illness at around 3.5% of GDP in Europe alone. Beyond the economic risks, citizens who feel isolated and anxious about the future could also feed into social unrest.
However, most healthcare systems remain unsuited to modern life and often disregard mental health and social well-being. Innovation in AI now allows us to diagnose and cure mental illness early on, but these technologies could have very negative side effects: used in recruitment processes, AI could detect and discriminate against individuals suffering from mental health, reinforcing the already existing stigma and feelings of inadequacy. OECD governments increasingly recognise that policy has a major role to play in keeping people with mental health problems in employment and helping them to perform at work, in bringing those outside of the labour market into it or back to it, and in preventing mental illness at all ages including youth and adolescence.
Despite technology’s role in the pressures of modern life, it can also be a tool to tackle loneliness, particularly in care-related settings. Research shows that loneliness is more prevalent in older generations: as nuclear families break down, aging parents are often left to themselves. Initiatives such as robot pets or “on demand grandkid” apps have emerged to facilitate or substitute human contact. In addition, e-health services can provide help in accessible and meaningful ways. But this can only be beneficial to society if we first find ways to tackle the stigma attached to mental illness.
Against this backdrop, the panel on The Pressure of Modern Life will reflect on the complex relationship between digital technologies and social connection, mental health and well-being.
- What do you feel about the current state of the world in terms of mental health, loneliness, etc?
- Do you think there is a causal link between loneliness, lack of empathy and technology? Is loneliness and lack of empathy a consequence of time spent online or do lonely people spend more time online to find connections?
- What role can governments take to fight the loneliness epidemic? Is it the government’s duty to do so?
- How to improve mental health and well-being in the work place?
- How can companies be incentivised to prioritise mental health of workers?
- How to design workspaces that are more supportive of people who suffer from stress, anxiety or depression?
- As AI is increasingly used in recruitment processes, what to do about the fact that AI could discriminate against people suffering from mental illness?
- What sectors may be more at a risk related to stress, anxiety or depression?
- How to minimise the risk of digital technologies without restricting the considerable opportunities and benefits they have to offer?
- What do you recommend in support of a better work/life balance?
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