A. “Talk Shop” – the first proposal is for the government to rent (at a moderate rate) empty retail properties on high streets (the properties involved in the project would be zero-rated). These properties would be converted into inviting spaces for people to talk and re-connect (possibly with the assistance of existing charities with expertise in this area). Established groups e.g. craft groups, could use the facility, but there would also be space for strangers to talk (“new connections” areas), either individually or in groups, and space for the retired to connect with the young (“wisdom corners”). The use of mobile phone, laptops or computers would be forbidden (except for those devices used for the administration of the project). Facilitators / moderators would be employed to assist with the project and to safeguard against abuse or grooming. Security personnel would also be required to prevent any untoward incidents. “Social prescribing” has become increasingly common in recent years. G.P.s and social workers could recommend attendance at a “Talk Shop”, as part of a social prescription for the lonely. In the “wisdom corners”, the skills and life-experience of regular attendees could be publicised, and young people who are looking to develop a career in a particular area could be encouraged to speak to a retired individual who has worked in that area. The co-operation of schools in the project would be desirable and, any regular attendees, would have to be appropriately vetted. Careers advice at school is often sub-standard due to the limited experience of the advisors, which is why it may be beneficial to involve a wider pool of retired people. The project could start small as an opportunity for the lonely to leave their houses and talk with other people in a curated, safe space. However, if successful, the project could be expanded. For example, in a larger ex-retail property, there could be space for a formal citizen’s advice service with trained, volunteer, citizen advisors providing advice to anyone who needs it (which may provide an opportunity for the retired and those who have prematurely lost their jobs to find a new, useful role in society). In addition, there could be space for trained, volunteer counsellors to provide advice to those who have suffered due to the pandemic (e.g. N.H.S. workers). Although there are many challenges, such a project might not only help to tackle loneliness, but also the challenge of youth unemployment, the need to re-vitalise town centres and the need to care for those suffering post-pandemic trauma. Ground rules would need to be set for interactions in “Talk Shops” and public consultation on the proposals is recommended. Government investment would be required, but the benefits may more than out-weigh the costs.
B. Not all of the elderly / retired would be able (or wish to) travel to the facilities described above. In such cases, new technology (such as Zoom) could be used to connect elderly / retired volunteers (appropriately vetted), with young people, in a mentoring and coaching capacity. This could potentially be of benefit to both age groups. once again, the project would have to be carefully curated and monitored, but there is no reason that it could not be successful. The co-operation of central government, local government, charities and schools may be required for the establishment of such projects.
I have worked in local government, for the civil service, for the pharmaceutical industry (in the U.K. and abroad), and run my own business. As I approach retirement, I feel that it is a great pity to waste all of the knowledge and experience that I have acquired (I would also like to continue to be useful to society for as long as I can be). There must be a great many people who feel as I do.
Future challenges require innovative thinking. The pandemic has taught us how important connecting with other people is to both our physical and mental well-being. We now have an opportunity to make the world anew.