June 23, 2006

"Americans have a third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago."

USAToday reports:
In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them, says a study in today's American Sociological Review. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all....

The study finds fewer contacts are from clubs and neighbors; people are relying more on family, a phenomenon documented in the 2000 book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, a Harvard public policy professor.

The percentage of people who confide only in family increased from 57% to 80%, and the number who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5% to 9%, the study found.
I'm surprised the number who confide only in family is so high, but then why is the number who confide only in their spouse so low? I guess that 80% who confide only in family confide in more than one person, often including a spouse. You can't tell from those statistics what percent of individuals don't confide in their spouses or who confide in only one family member other than a spouse. What percent of Americans confide only in their mothers? More than 9%?
Why people have fewer close friends is unclear, Putnam says. "This is a mystery like Murder on the Orient Express, in which there are multiple culprits."

The chief suspects: More people live in the suburbs and spend more time at work, Putnam says, leaving less time to socialize or join groups.

Also, people have more entertainment tools such as TV, iPods and computers, so they can stay home and tune out.
Yes, what about those blogger characters who confide in the whole world? That's not me. But I'm just saying...

A question I have about the statistics -- and I've only read the news report, not the underlying scholarly article -- is whether the idea of what it means to confide in or rely on someone has changed over time. "The study is based on surveys of 1,531 people in 1985 and 1,467 in 2004," and I'm sure that basically the same questions were asked. But people may think about the questions differently now than they did then. And what it means to be close to other people may have changed. For example, you might be more likely to have someone to talk to about your sex life but less likely to have someone to take you to the doctor. Maybe we've come to accept more professional help for certain kind of problems that we used to rely on friends to help us with.

1985, the year of the original survey, was also the year that "Dionne and Friends" had a big hit with the song "That's What Friends Are For." The recording was made to benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and that expressed the notion that "What Friends Are For" is to help you when you're sick and you need comforting and -- let's be frank -- money. But what friends are for is open to question and redefinition. It would be a different sort of study that examined what it means to have friends. You might feel that you have several friends that you can talk to about your deep feelings and aspirations but still think there is no way you'd ever ask them for money or to do your errands when you're in the hospital. That's what family are for.

32 comments:

Alan Kellogg said...

Or maybe we keep being told that we can't rely on anybody else, that we need to be sufficient onto ourselves. Self-reliance carried to its destructive extreme.

Mary said...

Maybe people nowadays tend to overvalue material things and discount the wealth in being there for others.

For example, I'm saddened to hear of wealthy folks who can't visit aging parents. What is the wealth for if you can't be there for them at the end?

And beware those like Howard Stern, who think adults have to shed friendships on the climb to the top. Superficial relationships may not be satisfy in the long run.

elliot said...

Or perhaps the reason is that people tend to screw each other over and the better they know you the more damage they can do.

Half of all MARRIAGES end in divorce and that's the person you're most likely to confide in and depend upon.

If your spouse can't be a trusted/safe confidant how the hell can you rely on some guy you go bowling with once a week?

amba said...

The original AIDS crisis in the '80s -- when most people who had it were dying -- transformed the gay community in Greenwich Village in the most extraordinary way, turning it into a whole world of conscious, committed mutual support that non-gay residents with non-AIDS problems could still feel the benefits from two decades later. We had help with a landlord-tenant problem from the guy (gay) who worked on such matters for City Council member and state senator Tom Duane (who's gay). It was very unusual to encounter that much commitment and staying power, and you realized that it came out of that crucible of life and death.

PatCA said...

I think socializing has changed. Women are no longer home creating a neighborhood circle of friendships, and friendship itself changed for a while with the therapy movement, which advocated "sharing" on a level that became finally quite exhausting. So I think it's good that we rely on our families for such closeness--when I play tennis or go to dinner, I want to enjoy myself and my companions.

Truly said...

Well, Professor, as long as there's quxxo you know you'll never be alone.

dick said...

I think part of the problem is that the country is so mobile that people don't have the time to build the friendships that will allow for that much closeness and sharing.

I have lived in 13 different cities since I got out of college 45 years ago. I have 3 friends that I can share confidences with and can rely on and we have been friends for over 30 years. I have a lot of close acquaintances that I can talk about some things with.

The ones I can share confidences with no longer live within close proximity so we share via email and phone but we still share. When my father died 25 years ago, one of my friends took time off work and flew out to my home town to be there for me as he knew I had no really close friends there any more. You cannot buy that kind of friendship. You have to earn it and keep it tended. If I need anything at all, I know I can call and the same goes for them. We have worked together at various times (3 times with one and twice with the other) but the friendship has developed so far beyond that.

I really think that there are a couple of other factors here as well. One is that there is a little bit of the stepping on people to get ahead that is preached. You see it a lot in corporations where people don't seem to realize that you are all working for the same goal. Jobs are broken down so finely that you get this is mine and that is yours and they are not related approach. There is too much of a cut throat competition and not enough of a teamwork competition.

There is also much too much backbiting going on in businesses. How can you become friends if you are stabbing someone in the back or vice versa. I worked when I first came to NYC for a company that took this to a fine art. My boss had a secretary who was young and very pretty. He looked on her almost as a daughter and really tried to act as a father at times. She and I went on coffee break and were sitting at a table chatting with each other. She told me that it really bothered her that he was so protective and it was none of his business. We got back to the office and she was fired - for talking about her boss in the coffee room. Someone had listened in and gone straight to him and told him. How can you develop any trust or friendship in that kind of atmosphere.

Troy said...

Between work, little league, church, etc. who needs "community"? I need time to myself and family. I don't need more friends and acquaintances.

Wealthy kids and aging parents.... I hear Cats in the Cradle and Old Man look at my life.... playing in the background. While it in no way justifies ignoring one's parents in their old age, there's more backstory I'd wager to explain why a kid dumps his parents. I'd do anything to care for my Mom, but then, she did everything to care for me and my sibs when Dad left.

Again for the emotive types... I did not say it justifies parent-dumping -- it only explains, partially, the phenomenon.

Troy said...

Between work, little league, church, etc. who needs "community"? I need time to myself and family. I don't need more friends and acquaintances.

Wealthy kids and aging parents.... I hear Cats in the Cradle and Old Man look at my life.... playing in the background. While it in no way justifies ignoring one's parents in their old age, there's more backstory I'd wager to explain why a kid dumps his parents. I'd do anything to care for my Mom, but then, she did everything to care for me and my sibs when Dad left.

Again for the emotive types... I did not say it justifies parent-dumping -- it only explains, partially, the phenomenon.

Richard Dolan said...

While I wouldn't put much stock in this kind of study, Ann asks an interesting question: "whether [the] idea of what it means to confide in or rely on someone has changed over time."

It certainly "changes over time" for most people as they grow older. I watch my daughters (7 and almost 11) taking great delight in sharing whatever "confidences" one has at that age with the new best friend they seem to have each month. Those groups form and dissolve much faster than anyone not directly involved could ever keep up with. I am sure that both of them will come to learn that life just doesn't work that way 3, 4 or 5 decades later.

As for the idea that one of the "chief suspects" is that "more people live in the suburbs and spend more time at work," that must mean that a century or two ago, no one confided in anyone except a spouse -- things were too spread out in the then-predominant rural economy, and the portion of one's waking hours devoted to work was much higher than today. So far from there being a decline in the "number of people" Americans confide in, a slightly longer historical perspective reveals a different pattern. Like the weather.

Pogo said...

Americans may have a third fewer close friends and confidants, but those remaining are generally two-thirds larger, so it evens out.

dick said...

As to the idea of going to family rather than friends to handle errands, etc, that is good if you have family. Those of us who are a little older (or a lot older?) may no longer have family members around. What would you suggest then? That is why we develop pseudo-family friendships and learn to depend on them.

reader_iam said...

That is why we develop pseudo-family friendships and learn to depend on them.

I have a number of friends from way back (none live in this area) whom I consider "family," no pseudo about it. This includes my best girlfriend (with whom I will mark 34 years of friendship on July 2), who's lived in Austin, TX, for close to 20 years, and a guy friend with whom I spent late afternoon in person every Christmas Eve for many years. For the past 10 years, since I moved, we have had a standing phone date on Christmas, during which we catch up and "toast" each other with the same liquers we used to do so in person. And I visit him for a couple of days in Philly every summer, unless he's off consulting in some foreign country.

And there are others whom I'll see this summer also, when I'm back East.

These things are so important. I find it much harder to find good, close confidantes as time goes on. I suspect this partly just getting older, but I also think it's the times. We have lots of acquaintances here and a few good friends, but truth be told, when we move away from here, I suspect there will really only be a handful people, between the two of us, with whom we'll stay in any sort of regular, close contact.

Joe R said...

Are we really more disconnected? A benefit of traditional long-term friendship is that you both benefit from being able to have someone to depend on when you need help. But now that there are more possible connections through technology and work environments, doesn't it make sense to have more 'weak' connections than 'strong' ones particularly when our moral concepts (i.e. The Good Samaritan and Paying it Forward) dictate that we should be willing to help others in need even if we don't know that well or at all. This strikes me as one of those society is going to hell and it was so much better in the golden days stories, when, really, all that is happening is society and culture are evolving for the better.

amba said...

Evolving for the different. You gain some, you lose some. Being able to stay in touch so easily with "distant close friends" and to reconnect with long-lost friends (I've done that!) are marvelous.

It's hard though to be geographically isolated when you're grounded by illness and need simple, practical, physical kinds of help and company.

AJ Lynch said...

Truly said..."Well, Professor, as long as there's quxxo you know you'll never be alone."

Got to say that is a great post and only required 13 words! Should Will quxxo regard it as a sign of hope in his quest to win the blogging law prof?

TQ Menon said...

Believe it or not, I am the only person I know!

Synova said...

I call my mom when I need to bare my soul.

For the rest of it... we've moved a lot. I sort of envy those who seem to be best buds with everyone they meet but it takes me a long time to get to know people. I'm entirely comfortable with strangers... it's not that I'm shy... it's that it takes time and the history that goes with it for me to form close relationships.

I have friends, but all of us spend most of our time and energy on our families. Maybe once the kids all leave home we'll start going out "with the girls" again.

Synova said...

I call my mom when I need to bare my soul.

For the rest of it... we've moved a lot. I sort of envy those who seem to be best buds with everyone they meet but it takes me a long time to get to know people. I'm entirely comfortable with strangers... it's not that I'm shy... it's that it takes time and the history that goes with it for me to form close relationships.

I have friends, but all of us spend most of our time and energy on our families. Maybe once the kids all leave home we'll start going out "with the girls" again.

FXKLM said...

I have little interest in close personal relationships and don't feel any particular need for a confident. I take a very sincere pleasure in material possessions. People who do enjoy social relationships are perfectly free to have them. Why are my personal preferences a social crisis?

Mary said...

Between work, little league, church, etc. who needs "community"?

Troy, many would say church, neighbors, youth sports ... that is "community". You can make friendships there, just as you can keep childhood friendships alive when you move away. And my comment was referring to non-dysfunctional families, and those with enough work flexibility and monetary resources to keep up relationships. Sorry if you were offended somehow.

Eli Blake said...

What jumped out at me about this article was this:

No mention of how many people confide in a member of the clergy.

I've always felt that there were some matters that you always had to have the confidence that you could go to (depending on your faith) your bishop, your minister, your priest or your rabbi about. This may even be one reason why divorce is so much more prevalent, because marital difficulties are certainly one of the things that people in past generations would talk to a clergy member about.

What this tells me is that people no longer believe in many cases that their clergy members can receive divine revelation so they no longer consider talking to a clergy member as a pathway to seek God's help.

And I believe (having received guidance more than once after confiding in members of the clergy) that is unfortunate.

P. Froward said...

After six years of incompetence and mismanagement in Washington, Americans have fewer friends than ever before, and those friends like them less.

The Bush administration has FAILED to protect American friendshiop.


How ya like them apples? A sure-fire winner in November! I offer this lovely, gleaming, factory-new talking point to the Democratic Party free of charge, as a token of my abiding esteem.

P. Froward said...

...and because there's no such thing as a bad time to smirk.

Pogo said...

Re: No mention of how many people confide in a member of the clergy.

I think people more likely now purchase their confidants.

No need to bare one's soul to a friend, when instead one can hire a non-judgemental therapist who will never tell anyone your secrets.

Eli Blake said...

Pogo:

I think people more likely now purchase their confidants.

No need to bare one's soul to a friend, when instead one can hire a non-judgemental therapist who will never tell anyone your secrets.


Hmmm... Isn't that more or less what Dick Morris thought?

Pogo said...

Ha! Yer right!
Although "paid confidant" is not one of the common euphemisms for escort service, she did seem to know an awful lot about Di... Mr. Morris.

RogerA said...

I agree with Mary--little league, church etc are precisely what Putnam describes as community. I am a big fan of Putnam's work. And for any libertarians out there, Putnam's ideas of community and civic society are very much in opposition to a government paternalism.

Troy said...

Mary,

I was not offended in the slightest.

I meant to convey that sometimes "community" suffocates and I need a break (with my wife) -- a book, trip, beach, etc. I also know that we need to treat our children well (isn't that a song?) first because it's the right thing to do, but I also don't want to be old and alone and my children (and God willing my wife if she can stand me that long) are a good buffer from that.

I would imagine that, though it would be hard to quantify, just as many if not more people died alone in prior centuries. Imagine all the folks that took off for parts unknown -- be it a colony or a city.

dick said...

reader_iam,

I called them pseudo-family to differentiate from related blood family, not to make them less valuable than blood family. I agree with you. My friends are actually closer to me than some of my family was when we were together. I consider myself blessed to have the friends that I have and have kept for so long.

Susie said...

More Americans also raise dogs and pets as children/friends.

Dave said...

When I was a kid, my grandparents --- Greatest Generation, WWII types --- used to deride the breakdown of the community, lamenting their perception that people weren't "neighborly" anymore.

As a technocratic twentysomething with one foot in the city and the other in the 'burbs, I now understand that both they and Putnam were right. I think there are several reasons for this dynamic. One is that there's a great deal of migration going on in this country. People are moving from the snow belt to the sun belt. Young people go from their hometown to their college town to another town for their first job to yet another town to go to grad school and so forth. Older folks go someplace warm to retire. With increasing mobility comes increased difficulty at developing long-term, meaningful relationships that aren't familial or commercial in nature.

I also think that one of the consequences of our "me-first" society is an inability to trust one another. I don't know about anyone else on this board, but I've been deceived and manipulated by pretty much every significant other and most of the folks I considered close friends at any given time. Either I have particularly bad taste in companions or people are becoming far bigger (word I can't say on a family site) than ever before.

Or maybe people were always (there's that word again), but in the past, we were mature enough to handle the imperfections in human nature. After all, if there's one trait that facilitates the development of strong relationships, it's patience. And in a world of instant-gratification, working out the quirks in a friendship, relationship, etc, becomes more than many are willing to handle.