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All Alone

Sebastian Mallaby says Americans are lonelier than ever:

The question about loneliness is: Why do people do this to themselves? Why do Americans, who reported an average of nearly three close friends in 1985, now report an average of just over two? And why does one in four have nobody with whom to discuss personal issues? This is the age of Oprah and MySpace, of public emoting on television and the Web. Apparently people watch "Friends" but don't actually have many.
I'd be interested in seeing a demographic breakdown -- is this just an artificat of population aging? I feel like I have lots of friends (thankfully) and that technology and so forth have done a lot to facilitate that.

UPDATE: Here's the underlying paper where, being highly trained professional sociologists, they turn out to have done the appropriate demographic corrections and so forth.

June 26, 2006 | Permalink


The timeliness of this sentence you quoted really says it all: "Apparently people watch "Friends" but don't actually have many." This is a lazy, fill-in-the-blanks scare column that somebody at the Post (and plenty of other papers and magazines, too) writes every eight or ten months. I'm pretty sure that if this study hadn't come out they would have just found the data elsewhere to correlate with this conclusion.

The world is not going to hell because of the internet, or because of cheap long distance, or because of McDonald's, or because of the demise of bowling leagues (although I must admit a personal regret on that one).

I think this kind of story just distracts from the surfeit of serious problems we should be working on.

Posted by: Jake | Jun 26, 2006 11:11:16 AM

Just read the original paper, Matt. It's a lot more responsible than most of the commentary, and should address a lot of the questions you have.

Posted by: Kieran | Jun 26, 2006 12:29:53 PM

ok, obviously i should read the paper itself, but i should say that the notion that a country where people don't have the opportunity to take vacations, work too hard, and spend too much time commuting is a country where it might be harder to sustain real friendships....

Posted by: howard | Jun 26, 2006 12:49:13 PM

Honestly I don't care if we sink into economic obscurity and end up playing second-Erhu to a dominant China. I'd much rather have a month off, universal healthcare, haute cuisine, and hot babes than this "culture" of greed, NASCAR, commercial christianity, and two hummers in every palacial garage.

Maybe I should move in with Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis over in Chease-eating Surrender-Monkey land.

Posted by: Greg | Jun 26, 2006 2:31:26 PM

But by some reckonings social isolation is as big a risk factor for premature death as smoking.

Sweet! I have a lot of close friends, now Joe Camel can still be one of them!

Posted by: Scotty Mac | Jun 26, 2006 3:36:38 PM

The study is about very close friends in whom you'd confide about personal problems. It shows that from 1985-2004 the number of very close confidants that men have outside their kin (by blood or marriage) dropped sharply. I think what is happening is that companionate marriage is becoming ever more dominant. There are upsides to that, but one downside is that in case of divorce or widowerhood, men can be left very alone.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jun 26, 2006 9:25:36 PM

Here is a terrific article from the online weight-training magazine Testosterone concerning the decline of friendships among adult men. Don't let its informal tone at the beginning give you the wrong idea, it makes some excellent points.

Posted by: Peter | Jun 26, 2006 10:29:54 PM

I love the "too poor to replace your hip" example of path dependency Mallaby threw out there. Makes me think of two sociologists sitting around like the the characters from the Guiness beer ads,

"Path dependency, Brilliant!"

I used to feel like the posters upthread who advocate for full freedom of expression on television. But lately I'm worried about what's happening to our culture. Have we reached the decline in the American Empire? Aren't we being offered bread and circuses? I think people are made jaded, cynical, and overexposed by today's mass media. It takes too long to weed through all the crap out there to find the decent programming, so most people don't bother and their kids watch Jerry Springer. That's why TIVO, which I don't have, is so essential at this point. But the fact that TIVO is essential just illustrates how dependent on television we all are. If I were the judge of our culture, the evidence would indicate that it's fairly regardless of the quality and taste of the programming. (If that Lucky Louie Show on HBO lasts much longer, I'm going to shoot myself) I blame the incredible indifference in modern society on the slow death of shock value and the media quest to bury it deeper? The TV has slowly and progressively desensitized our culture to just about every deadly sin there is: sloth, gluttony, pride, envy, greed, anger, and lust. It's absurd to claim that it hasn't. Every day they push it further. So now, there's no shock left for torture, let alone wire tapping. I'm getting the creeping feeling that, at present, the US has exactly the Administration it deserves and this is just the beginning of the end for America. Our TV culture accepts whatever's on, especially when they actually have to get up off the couch to change the channel.

Posted by: Just Karl | Jun 27, 2006 12:18:59 AM

I guess I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue. I meant to post that at http://yglesias.tpmcafe.com/blog/yglesias/2006/jun/26/the_trouble_with_culture_bashing

Posted by: Just Karl | Jun 27, 2006 7:31:09 AM

I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research. How sad that Americans are averaging fewer close friends. I wonder if this has to do with the long hours we work, combined with our often long commutes. Doesn't leave much time for a social life, does it?

Posted by: panasianbiz | Jun 28, 2006 9:31:14 PM

I'm having a pity party, care to attend ?

My mom died when I was 14 in 1980. I never knew my dad until I was 36, in 2000. He died in 2002.
I was the only child. Grandparents died in the 70's.

Being on my own at 14, in order to keep my mom's home (idn't have life insur.) so that I wouldn't have to go to a foster home, I got my state appointed legal guardian to agree to sign papers allowing me to marry so that I could keep the home & be considered an adult of sorts.

Having to drop out of school, to pay mortgage, property taxes, utilities, etc., I was thrown into the work force with no real education. I've never made more than $25,000 ; there will be no social security for my generation.

Being married so young, with little guidince or direction, we survived the best we could. It was a constant struggled so we would escape the pressures of life by experimenting with drugs whiched caused a large degree of drama in our lives. I have seen things that would horrify the strongest. It's a wonder I'm still here or a curse, gift or whatever !?

Anyway, I get into these relationships, usually abusive,but for the last 4 years , I've been with a great guy, but now it seems he's even losing intrest. I feel it's because I'm not educated enough or have enough money. The thought of being all alone is depressing. I really only have a couple of close friends and no family. I know my days living with this guy are numbered. Soon I hear the words "GET OUT". Thank GOD I've got my own home to go to.

Oh well, I'm preparing for judgement day & the next life. If it turns out that there's no "next life", if I even have the capacity to think or feel, I'm gonna' be one pissed off bitch !!!!

Just humor me, I'm depressed & sick of the struggle. LIFE SUCKS !!!!!!!!! Ms. Negativity

P.S. I try to keep telling myself how good I've got it & how there's 10's of millions of suffering souls out there. I pray for an end to all the pain & sorrow & GRIEF! Isn't sleeping sheer blissfulness?

Posted by: Evelyn | Jun 30, 2006 11:52:25 PM

Well, it's a new day & my boyfriend is treating like a queen again. Life is good today. On days like this, I feel like life is really a gift & I should really stop dwelling in the past & look towards the future.

If I were the spiritual christian I calim to be, it seems I'd realize I'M NOT ALONE!! For whatever it's worth,(my salvation), I'm a BELIEVER. I believe that I analyze things too much & perhaps even think too much about what would've, should've, could've been. I'm obviously doing some major soul searching today. I'm feeling quite grateful today.

You know that song, "Life is a highway..I wanna' ride it all night long"...well...Life is a freaking ROLLER COASTER !!!!!!!! Bi-polar, roller-coaster, it's all the same damn thing! LOL

Have a GREAT DAY! :)

Posted by: Evelyn | Jul 2, 2006 3:35:40 PM

I work from home, and also M-F 10-3 PM. I have plenty of time to socialize, it's just that I'm a boor. Will you be my friend? I'll pay for things.

Posted by: Greg | Jul 2, 2006 6:35:50 PM

Ha, Ha, you're too cute! LOL. Here lately, my b/f has been paying for everything. Hopefully, soon I'll be working for a very sucessful real estate firm & I'll be able to pay for everything.

Posted by: Evelyn | Jul 2, 2006 8:43:36 PM

hey.......that's it.......I'll just buy some friends !?

......smart people.....smart-rich people
......smart,rich,cute people
.......smart,rich,cute,nice people,
.......smart,rich,cute,nice,honest people.......

ahhhhhh.....just someone that doesn't lie,cheat or steal....that'll do......do they even exist?

Posted by: Evelyn | Jul 2, 2006 8:52:54 PM

if they do, they're probably not worth knowing

Posted by: Greg | Jul 2, 2006 11:14:11 PM

Then, does that mean the only ones worth knowing are liars & cheats? Are they somehow more interesting & exciting? If so, I'll just become a recluse. With friends like that, I'm better off alone.

Posted by: Evelyn | Jul 6, 2006 5:26:15 PM

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