After a prolonged period of social isolation, Americans are dusting off their social calendars. But as Americans try to rebuild and reconnect, a new survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life finds that the social landscape is far less favorable than it once was. Over the past three decades, the number of close friends Americans have has plummeted.
This friendship recession is particularly bad for men. The percentage of men with at least six close friends fell by half since 1990, from 55 percent to 27 percent. The study also found the percentage of men without any close friends jumped from 3 percent to 15 percent, a fivefold increase.
Single men fare the worst. One in five American men who are unmarried and not in a romantic relationship report not having any close friends.
Even men with a couple of close friends are not in great shape. When it comes to our social circles, size matters. Americans with one close friend are not any less lonely or isolated than those without any close friends. And those with a couple of close confidants are only modestly better off. For those 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.
The bad news doesn’t end there. Not only do men have smaller friendship circles, they report being less emotionally connected to the friends they do have. Both men and women benefit from developing strong emotional bonds with their friends, but women are more successful in establishing these types of relationships. The study finds that women report far higher rates of emotional engagement with and support from their friends. This type of intimacy matters. Americans who receive regular emotional support from their friends are far less likely to report feeling anxious or alone than those who do not, and this is true independent of how many friends they have.
One common explanation for why men are less able to develop and maintain close relationships is that traditional norms of masculinity make the task of building and sustaining healthy friendships more difficult. Compared to women, men feel less comfortable sharing their feelings, being vulnerable, or seeking emotional support from their friends. While there may be some truth to this, the story is more complicated. Younger men, who are far more likely to reject traditional notions of masculinity, struggle the most with developing enduring social bonds.
A more obvious explanation may be that women are more likely to put in the work. Research shows that “women tend to invest more in maintaining their friendships” than men do. In a recent interview, psychotherapist and author Robert Garfield suggested that men “stash their friendships away,” reaching out at infrequent intervals. “Many guys say they see or speak to their best friends every two or three years and ‘we just pick up where we left off.’” That may be true. But in the intervening years, men deny themselves the benefit that more regular contact could provide.
There are structural factors at work as well. In a 2019 research project with my colleague Ryan Streeter, we found that higher rates of loneliness among Millennials was due primarily to lower religious involvement, lower marriage rates, and greater geographic mobility. Once accounting for these factors, Millennials were not lonelier than Baby Boomers. If men are marrying later than women on average and are less connected to religious communities, it may further exacerbate the friendship gap.
A final explanation may be found in changes in the workplace. The most common place Americans develop close friendship is on the job. Most men and women say they formed a close friendship at work. But as Americans work longer hours, switch jobs more often, and increasingly avoid coming to the office at all, developing workplace friendships may prove more difficult.
Despite the grim outlook, there is a simple solution. One of the most important things that friendships require is time. In adolescence, Americans prioritize their friendships in a way they do not at any other point in their life. At age 18, we are spending more than two hours a day, on average, with our friends, but this drops precipitously over the ensuing decade. By the time we reach middle age, Americans are devoting only about 30 minutes a day to maintaining their friendships. This is simply not enough. We should rededicate time to fostering friendships, at work, in our neighborhoods, and even online. Few investments provide such an immediate and enduring reward while entailing so little risk.