June 29, 2021
As Americans venture back out to reclaim their social lives, a new report reveals a profound change in the nature of American friendships. One of the most important changes revealed by May American Perspectives Survey is the decline of close friendships. In the past three decades, American friendship groups have become smaller and the number of Americans without any close confidants has risen sharply.
But these changes have not affected Americans equally. Men appear to have suffered a far steeper decline than women. Thirty years ago, a majority of men (55 percent) reported having at least six close friends, Today, that number has been cut in half. Slightly more than one in four (27 percent) men have six or more close friends today. Fifteen percent of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990.
Women have witnessed a friendship decline too, but it has been far less pronounced. In 1990, roughly four in ten (41 percent) women said they had six or more close friends, compared to 24 percent today. Ten percent of women reporting having no close friends.
And while having ten close friends might seem unmanageable for some, the size of our social circles appears to matter a great deal. Americans with only one close friend are not any less lonely than those with none, while those with only a few are only in marginally better shape. For Americans with three or fewer close friends, loneliness and isolation are fairly common experiences—more than half say they have felt that way at least once in the past seven days. In contrast, only one in three Americans with ten or more close friends report feeling lonely in the past seven days.
This trend is particularly concerning for young people. As we note in our recent report: “Young adults and singles are unique to the extent that they rely on friends for emotional and personal support.” But young men today are for more reliant on their parents than their friends. This is a remarkable change in social support. In 1990, nearly half (45 percent) of young men reported that the when facing a personal problem they would reach out first to their friends. Today, only 22 percent of young men lean on their friends in tough times. Thirty-six percent say their first call is to their parents.
Unfortunately, this new survey is consistent with a growing body of research. A major national survey of Americans’ social networks conducted last year revealed that Americans’ social circles were contracting. Nearly one in five Americans reported having no close social connections, a double-digit increase from 2013. And young men are faring worse than most: More than one in four (28 percent) men under the age of 30 reported having no close social connections1. A survey conducted by the Associated Press recently found that 18 percent of the public had no more than one person outside their immediate household they could turn to for help.
As the pandemic recedes, the American economy will recover. Most businesses will adapt, evolve, and ultimately thrive. The future of American social life looks much bleaker. Our social circles are smaller, and friendship groups are depleted. The social recovery may take much longer, or it may not happen at all.
1In the survey, close social contact was defined as having someone you talked to within the last 6 months about an important personal matter.