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Is technology responsible for a decline in human empathy?

At a glance

  • As today’s economy grows more interconnected, a new global phenomenon has emerged: the growing number of people who feel disconnected and isolated
  • The Global Risk Report notes that in a recent study, technology was cited as a major cause of loneliness and social isolation
  • For business leaders, the challenge is to create a corporate culture of openness and diversity that is responsive to the concerns of employees and customers

As today’s economy grows more interconnected, a new global phenomenon has emerged: the growing number of people who feel disconnected and isolated.

Technology is revolutionizing the workplace, and creating unprecedented opportunities for business and society as the physical, digital and biological worlds increasingly merge. While technological change always causes stress, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is marked by a blurring of the line between the human and the technological, according to the Global Risks Report 2019, published by the World Economic Forum in partnership with Zurich Insurance Group.

The result of this blurring has been an increase in loneliness, rising polarization and a corresponding decline in empathy. And unlike previous waves of globalization, today’s feelings of discontent aren’t just confined to displaced workers. For business leaders, the challenge is to create a corporate culture of openness and diversity that is responsive to the concerns of employees and customers.

“We are going to need new ways of managing technology and globalization that respond to the insecurity that many people experience,” says John Scott, Head of Sustainability Risk at Zurich Insurance Group.

The Effects of Technology on Society

Technology is a complex factor in rising levels of anger and loneliness. The Global Risk Report notes that in a recent study, technology was cited as a major cause of loneliness and social isolation by 58 percent of survey respondents in the United States and 50 percent in the United Kingdom. But the same survey found that social media makes it easier for people to “connect with others in a meaningful way” and that lonely people were no more likely to use social media.

Pervasive digital technology has also blurred the boundary between the workplace and home. Work-related emails often start before office hours and continue long after close of business. Even as professional pressures increasingly encroach upon private life, people often don’t have traditional support networks at home, as the percentage of single-person households in the U.K. has almost doubled over the last 50 years, with similar increases in the U.S., Germany and Japan.

“Emotionally, people are quite lonely. We’re seeing in many societies a kind of breakdown of family, or connection with family,” Scott says. “I think it’s also a demographic thing; younger people are more tuned into using technology and social media, and to live in a world talking to machines through chatbots. That can create all sorts of emotions of fear and frustration, and in some cases that frustration can get expressed as anger.”

Individual psychological and emotional problems can become collective concerns when loneliness and frustration meet populist and identity politics—an emerging reality in what is becoming known as the “age of anger.” According to the Global Risks Report, these trends may pose a significant threat to geopolitical stability.

How Business Leaders Can Help

No business can be fully insulated from the increasing populism and decreasing empathy evident in society, but Scott believes that this risk can be managed with a corporate ethos that is alert, diverse and responsive.

The business world can take a number of steps to help mitigate the consequences of the human consequences of technology.

1. Improve mental health and well-being in the workplace
Mental health and safety rules and practices could play an analogous role by ensuring that workplace conditions are appropriate for an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

“A number of steps can be taken to protect organizations from systemic risks, including thinking small, looking for early warning signs and encouraging skepticism through diversity, with a culture of open communication and mitigating our cognitive biases,” he says.

2. Engage with society in a more meaningful way
For decades the mantras of shareholder value and the view that the “business of business is business” has pervaded Western developed economies. Increasingly in a more global, technology-dominated world, with less certainty, especially for younger people, there is a consumer and employee-led desire for something more meaningful in their lives.

Businesses that can create and convey a sense of purpose and meaning have a greater chance of connecting with employees and customers.

Download the 2019 Global Risks Report and the 2019 Global Risks Report Executive Summary below:

The Global Risks Report 2019

The Global Risks Report 2019 Executive Summary

Image © Getty

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