One of the great ironies of this interconnected age when we are wired as never before, when communication with another is merely an email, text, Zoom call, or app away, and when we have a plethora of groups to join and participate in and the time to be involved in them, more and more are finding themselves friendless or their friendships tentative and tenuous.
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One of the great ironies of this interconnected age when we are wired as never before, when communication with another is merely an email, text, Zoom call, or app away, and when we have a plethora of groups to join and participate in and the time to be involved in them, more and more are finding themselves friendless or their friendships tentative and tenuous. It’s more than a philosophical or psychological condition. It’s a symptom of what ails American culture specifically and our high-tech, quick-paced culture writ large.
Statistically, being friendless or a minimalist when it comes to interpersonal relationships is more true for men than women, but both genders are finding themselves more and more without when it comes to close friends. In a May 2021 American Perspectives Surveypoll, 15% of men and 10% of women said they have no close friends. In 1990, at the nascent stage of the internet, that figure for men was about 3%; for women, 2%. That’s a five-fold increase for both. And only about 50% of the entire population said they have four or more close friends. A hard truth is that there is a strong correlation between the size of one’s circle of close friends (three or less) and their experiences of loneliness and depression.
Perplexing to say the least. So, why is that happening especially in context of this age when the opportunity to connect with others is literally at the fingertips of most?
As the poll suggests, the tenability of friendships isn’t just a guy thing. A friend told me about a feature of many women’s friendships that I, being a guy without kids, had no clue about. She talked about “seasons of friendships” and how friends move in and out of their lives due to their roles as mothers. While their kids are growing, they form friendships with the mothers of their children’s friends via school, sports and other circumstances. But when the kids are grown and gone, oftentimes those friendships evaporate.
“I have lost many friends along the way only to realize that all we really had in common was that our children were the same age, at the same school or in the same sport,” she said.
Nevertheless, life goes only this time they find themselves navigating the friend scene not as young 20-somethings but as older women.
She spoke about how her career played a major role in developing her friendship circle.
“I think especially for women, the current roles you play impact the friendships you are able to sustain and nurture,” she said. “I have been in the same job for 32 years, so my co-workers are much more than friends. I recently added a low pay evening retail job where I have made new, young, poor friends who remind me of my former self.”
There is a fundamental difference between women and men when it comes to sharing personal stuff: Women talk; men get tight-lipped. Which points to a larger problem: Men have just as much need to talk about their stuff as women. But we rarely do. We’re taught from early toddlerhood that we need to put it away, toughen up, and for heaven’s sake, never, ever cry. Which gets at something both telling and ironic about the10-to-15%: The degree that attitude plays a role in why so many find themselves friendless, and they are often the ones most in need of close friends.
Certainly, other factors lie at the root of increased friendlessness. The pandemic, for example. But even though the pandemic seemed like an eon to get through, it was relatively short-lived. The increasing rate of those without friends has been a long-term trend, not a spike.
A vogue idiomatic expression is “killing it.” It’s a juxtaposition of kill in that it doesn’t suggest violence but, instead, means doing something great. I’d like to say in that context that when it comes to friendships we’re killing it. But we’re not. Rather, we’re literally killing them. That is especially true for Gen Z’ers who are, according to the data, the loneliest among us. Twenty-eight percent of men 30 and under, for example, reported they have no close social connections. But that’s a separate topic that would entail discussion about helicopter parents and the wireless umbilical cord that aids and abets their keeping their children symbolically and sometimes literally nested in their roost.
Want to do something small but monumental to stem the deterioration and fragmentation of American society? Break out of your bubble—religious, political, or whatever—and befriend another. And then another. And then… You might not change the world overnight, but you just make another feel wanted and valued. And you just might find yourself with a new friend, even a close one that causes you to wonder how in the heck you got through life without them.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.
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