America’s “Friendship Recession” Is Weakening Civic Life
August 24, 2023
If you’ve read anything about America’s “Friendship Recession,” chances are that it cites a 2021 survey we conducted. It was one of the first major studies solely dedicated to the topic of friendship in years, and the results were jaw-dropping—Americans reported a massive drop in the number of close friends, with men experiencing the steepest decline.
Yet the shrinking of our friend groups is not an individual tragedy, but a collective one.
Friendship predicts community involvement and civic participation. Sixty percent of Americans with at least six close friends say they have attended a local event or community meeting at least a few times in the past 12 months compared to only 33 percent of those with no close friends. Whether it’s going to the library, eating at a restaurant, or spending time at a bar, Americans with larger friend groups do all these things more often. Having more close friends also increases one’s likelihood of talking to strangers. Seventy percent of Americans with at least six close friends report having had a conversation with a stranger at least a few times in the last 12 months. Americans with more close friends volunteer in their communities more often too.
Friendship is a public good connecting us to other people and places that we otherwise might not have any contact with. Friends expose us to new ideas and new ways of doing things. They can challenge our views and push us to participate in activities that we might choose to avoid—one of the strongest predictors of voting in an election is simply being asked to do so. People with larger social networks are more likely to be asked. The same is true for church attendance. Few things will get an atheist into a church, but an invitation from a friend might. Much of our civic infrastructure is built on these disorganized, evolving, and sometimes fragile friendship networks.
Social Capital Catalysts
Most Americans believe that friendship is essential to living a fulfilling life. But only about half of the public is fully satisfied with the number of friends they have. Americans don’t prioritize friendship equally either—women tend to be significantly more socially engaged than men. Increasingly, American social life is dependent on a dwindling group of people doing a disproportionate amount of the heavy lifting.
In most two-parent families, it’s mothers more than fathers who are in charge of keeping the family’s social calendar, from scheduling playdates to organizing birthday parties. A 2023 report from the Pew Research Center found that social scheduling for the family was the one area where a majority of both mothers and fathers agreed that it was moms who were doing the lion’s share of the work. Seventy-eight percent of mothers and 54 percent of fathers say that moms spend more time planning social activities for their households.
This gender gap is evident in the workplace as well. No one produces more social capital in the workplace than College-educated women. They develop stronger ties with their coworkers, spend more time socializing with their colleagues, and participate more often in workplace functions. Nearly half (49 percent) of college-educated women report having organized a social event at their workplace in the last year, while only about one-third (32 percent) of their male colleagues have done the same.
We owe an awful lot to these friendship makers and social capital creators. Organizations and communities benefit when social ties are strong. People feel safer walking around their neighborhood if they have friends living nearby. Workers are less likely to leave their jobs if they have a close connection with a colleague. More often than not, it’s women who are doing the organizing, planning, and mental load-carrying.
One of the biggest mistakes we make about friendship is assuming that a lack of friends represents some type of personal failing. Sociability is more often a reflection of circumstance than innate ability. If you attended a four-year college, think back to how many new friends you made over your time there. Was this due to your charm, wit, and grace, or was it at least partly the result of being placed in an environment that regularly spurred social interactions?
Making friends is a natural human inclination and a byproduct of associational life. We make friends in the places where we spend time. On average, Americans who attend church regularly have more friends than those who attend rarely or not at all. Work friends require a workplace. A recent study found that the office is a critical source of new friendships—for many Americans, it’s one of the few places they can count on for a social outlet. As adults, we have fewer opportunities to make friends simply because we are less likely to be thrust into new places or pushed to participate in new activities.
As we get older, we spend less time with friends. Making friends is a critical part of childhood. My oldest son reports to me that he has made a new friend at every camp he’s attended this summer. We make plenty of friends as young adults too. A majority (56 percent) of young people (age 18 to 29) report having made a new friend in the last 12 months, but our willingness or capacity to forge these bonds seems to fade over time. Among seniors, only 41 percent say they have made a new friend in the past year.
We spend so much time worrying about the quality of our relationships that we neglect the number of social connections we have. Quantity matters. In a previous post, I wrote that Americans who have a larger group of close friends feel lonely less often, are less likely to experience depression, and generally have more positive feelings about their own health. Americans with larger friend groups are better off. In fact, “Nothing more strongly predicts the frequency with which we feel isolated from others or lonely than the total number of close friends we have.” As an antidote to loneliness, nothing is more effective—not church membership, marriage, or parenthood—than a generous collection of friends. But it’s not just our social life that suffers when we don’t have enough friends. Our civic life becomes poorer, our institutions weaker. Friendship creation needs to be a lifelong pursuit, not only because of what these relationships provide us personally, but for the society they help create.