July 02, 2006
Americans Becoming Lonelier

I hear Sting singing "I feel lonely, I'm so lonely, I feel so low". People have fewer confidants.

Durham, N.C. -- Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at DukeUniversity and the University of Arizona.

“The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants and those ties are also more family-based than they used to be,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology at Duke University and one of the authors of " Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades."

“This change indicates something that’s not good for our society. Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action,” she said.

The study, published in the June issue of American Sociological Review, is based on the first nationally representative survey on this topic in 19 years.

It compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the mean number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.

Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.

The study paints a picture of Americans’ social contacts as a “densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family.”

That means fewer contacts created through clubs, neighbors and organizations outside the home -- a phenomenon popularly known as “bowling alone,” from the 2000 book of the same title by Robert D. Putnam.

The researchers speculated that changes in communities and families, such as the increase in the number of hours that family members spend at work and the influence of Internet communication, may contribute to the decrease in the size of close-knit circles of friends and relatives.

The study also finds that:

-- The trend toward social isolation mirrors other class divides. Non-whites and people with less education tend to have smaller networks than white Americans and those with higher educational levels.

-- Racial diversity among people’s networks has increased. The percentage of people who count at least one person of another race in their close network has gone up from about 9 percent to more than 15 percent.

-- The percentage of people who talk only to family members about important matters increased from about 57 percent to about 80 percent, while the number of people who depend totally on their spouse has increased from about 5 percent to about 9 percent.

The social scientists who did this research are uncertain about explanations.

One possibility is that people interpreted the questions differently in 2004 than they did in 1985. What people define as “important” might have changed, or people might not equate emailing or instant messaging with “discussing.”

The researchers also suggest that changes in work and the geographical scattering of families may foster a broader, shallower network of ties, rather than the close bonds measured by this study.

Research also shows a decline in the number of groups that people belong to and the amount of time they spend with these clubs and other organizations. Members of families spend more time at work and have less time to spend on activities outside the home that might lead to close relationships.

And new technology, while it allows people to connect over larger distances, might diminish the need for face-to-face visits with friends, family or neighbors, the study said.

I certainly spend more time communicating with people remotely due to the internet. But hasn't the decline in the cost of phone calls shifted more time spent communicating to remote communication as well?

On the one hand, phones let people stay in contact with other people who are no longer living near them. On the other hand, time spent on the phone reduces time available to deal with people face-to-face. That face time seems more likely to develop friendships.

What I wonder: Are people specializing their relationship needs? Instead of having a friend that one uses for many things do people have more relationships where each relationship satisfies a smaller range of needs?

We can meet many more people. We can live in more places, work in more places, play in more places. We can communicate with people around the world. Look at yourself reading my writing right now. You can read some thoughts of some guy who is not a professional writer and you can respond to him in the comments and read my responses in return. That all pulls you away from developing relationships in person where you are.

But if the decline in relationships is greater in the lower classes then that argues against the internet playing the major role. The influence of the internet is greater among the more affluent.

Further into the future perhaps this trend will reverse. When we develop the ability to reverse the aging process people will have centuries in which to develop relationships. Automation will probably increase the amount of free time. Will people spend some of that time developing relationships?

On the other hand, automation will reduce many ways in which we need to come into contact with others. For example, look at education. It is incredibly inefficient. Every year the same basic calculus course gets taught thousands of times. Why not record more lectures and save all that labor? Plus, people could watch lectures whenever they wanted to. Tests could get delivered and graded automatically over the internet. But automation of much of learning would reduce contacts with teachers, school administrators, and fellow students.

Will work involve more human-to-human contact or less? Also, some jobs require lots of contact but of very short duration or via phone. Will jobs tend to involve more longer term relationships? Or will more of the customized delivery of services be done via computer records remembering customer preferences and will each customer service representative deal with a constantly changing set of customers with short interactions?

Anyone think they have insights on the causes of the decrease in real friendships?

Update: To what extent does movement to take new jobs cause a reduction in the number of friendships people maintain? Over the last couple of decades has there been a reduction in the average amount of time people spend in a neighborhood before moving a substantial distance?

I also wonder whether rising economic output and the resulting widening range of incomes has decreased the amount people have in common with each other. When a larger fraction of the population worked in factories salaries and career trajectories were more similar. Knowledge work might pull people apart as specialization in education and in career work reduces the extent of common experiences.

Update II: I think media make people less interested in those around them. You can find better looking people on TV, in movies, and on the internet. In contrast to who you can meet locally in electronic venues you can find funnier people, more thoughtful people, more original people, more energetic, pretty, sexy and alluring people, smarter, and more informed people. Getting to know your neighbors seems unrewarding to most people. That's a harsh thing to say. But for the vast bulk of the population it is also true. Most people are not that interesting to most other people.

What does this portend for the future?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 July 02 10:09 PM  Trends Demographic

PacRim Jim said at July 2, 2006 10:44 PM:

I believe nary a word of it. Some people latch onto any scintilla of information that degrades the noble USA. I say, to hell with them in a burning burlap bag.
Happy 230th, Land of the Free.

James Bowery said at July 2, 2006 11:26 PM:

Charles Murray's book "In Our Hands" has a good analysis of this. Basically, old social networks were replaced by the New Deal and then Great Society, creating substitute social networks known as "special interest groups" that spend their time lobbying the government for transfer program patronage. The idea of the proposal in that book, which has roots going back to Henry George's citizen's dividend, is to replace transfer programs with a monthly cash grant, 1/3 of which goes toward health insurance, and let people reform their social networks. I think the problems run deeper than that however this diagnosis is light years ahead of the applied social scientists.

Dave said at July 3, 2006 11:28 AM:

Lonelier.. take for example a farm, 60 years ago the harvest was a community event the children used to get time off school to help and most of the locals were involved in one way or another. After large scale mechanisation the tractors were still small and a lot of workers were still needed but now the latest tractors are able to do such a phenomenal amount of work compared to 15-20 years ago farming has become a job where only 1 or 2 people are needed most of the time. Ofcourse it depends on farm sizes etc but no doubt there has been a massive change.
Some people would say we can do our work faster so we can have more leisure time, but in reality it just made the prices go down and we have to be running faster just to stand still.

Nick said at July 3, 2006 1:03 PM:

People are working awfully long hours - how do you bowl if you're still on the road home at 7pm?

Also, I think Americans are more scared, and suspicious of strangers.

Crime is lower than 30 years ago, but people are terrified of crime.
We're wealthier than before, but we feel poorer.
We live longer and are much less disabled, but we think disease rates have risen.
We're afraid of strangers abducting our kids (stranger-danger), when 99.9% of abuse and kidnapping is done by someone we know.
We're much more secure in the world (no Hitler, no USSR, no enemy nations in the world, just rag-tag "terrorists" who got lucky on 9/11), but we're scared to death of "terrorists".

Who profits from a scared public? It helps media sells their product, politicians get elected and limit civil liberties, companies sell their products. It helps sell wars and war spending, and cuts in social programs. It helps sell SUV's that look like tanks.

In the 1960's, students started to think, maybe we have enough? Maybe we can start thinking about social goods, instead of larger houses and cars. Perhaps they were a little ahead of themselves - certainly the oil crises reminded the US that there was a larger world that still had to achieve the economic basics. Still, I think the fear-mongers have had to work a little harder lately to make people forget their dreams.

Stranger danger. It makes it much harder to make friends beyond your family.

Randall Parker said at July 3, 2006 3:40 PM:


We are wealthier? The bottom half is not wealthier. In the United States the average income has been increasing much more rapidly than the median and at the bottom incomes have stagnated and even declined.

I wonder whether the proliferation of TV channels has reduced the amount of common experience.

Hours worked and hours commuting: I'd really like to see a chart over decades of hours worked plus hours commuting. How much time do we spend away from home as compared to the past?

Also, mass transit gives people more experiences with other people. Driving in cars reduces the extent that you come into contact with others. Has the percentage of the population using mass transit declined?


I'd like to know how many people each person works with as compared to previous decades. I find myself collaborating with people remotely (11 or 12 time zones away) and therefore spending less time interacting with people who work in the same office.

Bob Badour said at July 3, 2006 8:54 PM:


During the time-frame given, the WWII veterans died. I suspect they had lifelong close friendships with the people they survived the war with. Whether one shared a foxhole with someone under enemy fire or whether one joined together with the other young wives caring for children with a husband overseas, one shared bonding experiences facing a challenge much larger than everyday life.

I suggest as a result the generation who fought WWII had friends they could confide just about anything in because all the everyday toils seemed so small in comparison. One would have to look at the distribution by age to test the hypothesis.

One might think the Viet Nam veterans would have experienced something similar, but they were pretty much ostracized upon return from the war.

berta said at July 4, 2006 10:08 AM:

Randall, we are all wealthier in America ... your assertion that the bottom half is simply false. Poverty in America is now largely a function of unwed mothers with children ...

James Bowery said at July 4, 2006 10:52 AM:

Berta, the reliable wage adjusted cost of having children, including paying for a home, car, food, education and health insurance, has gone up by a factor of 3 since the mid 1950s.

That's a big part of the reason there was a demographic collapse resulting in massive demand for immigration.

You're living in a dream world concocted by the CPI fraud artists.

RueHaxo said at July 4, 2006 8:05 PM:

Feminists feel free to flame me, but one of the chief reasons Americans feel lonelier is the decline of the stay at home mom. It used to be a neighborhood was full of moms. Not only did they watch over the kids but they would chit chat through the day; gossip over the fence as they hung the laundry out to dry in the yard. They were the anchor of a community and they promoted socialization. Now more often than not mom is a wage slave just like dad. They both get home from work at 5 or 6pm or later, fix up some dinner, and then everyone plops in front of the tv. No ambition to get out and visit or socialize.
My mom (who is a Democrat btw, not a rabid Republican) has said before the mothers entering the workplace was a disaster for America.
Liberals would say we need redistribution and state intervention. Libertarians wouls say we need lower taxes, regulation, more dynamism etc. But we need to make our economy friendlier to one income families, and we need to make our culture more respectful of homemakers, rather than treating them like self-loathing throwbacks or dullards incapable of anything else.

K T Cat said at July 5, 2006 5:51 AM:

Nick, I think you have a good point. We have become much more risk-averse as a nation.

I'm with Berta on the poverty issue. The statistics are pretty clear and easy to find.

Rue, you have hit upon it. It's hard to have a social network when all of your time at home is spent doing chores and maintenance. More work and more commuting and no one home doing the infrastructure support = less time with the neighbors or friends.

Kurt said at July 5, 2006 8:44 AM:

No, I think Bowery is right and Berta is wrong about the poverty issue.

The CPI has not fully accounted for inflation, especiallly since it was "adjusted" in the early 90's. Also, even in the 70's, the CPI did not account for increased costs of health care, insurance, and education - all of which has increased at a significantly greater rate than the official CPI. These are costs that are associated with raising a family.

There is also a 20-30% "premium" on family-sized houses in areas close to good schools, as compared with comparible houses away from such schools, in many cities in the U.S. Not to mention how our public schools have turned into PC indoctrination camps, as opposed to academic institutions, which is why more parents with the financial means to do so, send their kids to private schools.

I think the financial costs associated with raising a family have increased at a rate significantly greater than the CPI (this means the real CPI used in the 70's and 80's, not the fudged one we have been using since 1993).

James Bowery said at July 5, 2006 6:54 PM:

Figures from my insurance agent sent to me on my birthday:

The two big ticket necessities:
3 bedroom house price increase: 22 times
1954 $ 10,250
2006 $219,375

car price increase: 18 times
1954 $ 1,567
2006 $28,000

Even if we grant that the quality/cost ratio of manufactured goods has gone up so much during the last 52 years that $1,567 for a used car in 2006 is as good as a new car was in 1954, it doesn't bring down the sum of the 2 major debt-service items much:

house+car increase: 19 times
1954 $ 11,817 =$1,567+$10,250
2006 $220942 =$1,567+$219,375

So the debt-service load in a family household has gone up nearly a factor of 20 in the last 52 years.

PS: And don't kid yourself that it didn't hit hardest at the peak of the boomers who were paying 19% mortgage rates when they were trying to form families in the early 1980s. Look at these foreclosure rates:

Year $ value of mortgage loans foreclosed (in millions)

1965 944
1966 1,034
1967 957
1968 865
1969 364
1970 321
1971 438
1972 478
1973 577
1974 715
1975 1,086
1976 1,129
1977 868
1978 723
1979 683
1980 917
1981 1,563
1982 3,282
1983 4,240
1984 6,163
1985 8,675
1986 13,942
1987 18,373
1988 18,859
1989 18,189
1990 22,862
1991 17,105
1992 12,408
1993 6,852
1994 3,422
1995 2,506
1996 2,138
1997 1,805
1998 1,470
1999 1,022
2000 900

Has household income kept up? Hardly...

average household income increase: 13 times
1954 $ 4,137
2006 $54,000

So household income has gone up only about 70% as much as the essential household debt service in the last 52 years.

Oh, but wait -- that "household" in 1954 was one income and the income was relatively stable -- the woman stayed at home and raised the kids.

How can we factor not only that both parents must work in 2006 and not only are each of their jobs less secure, but the effective income of the household, adjusting for risk of not being able to meet debt payments for a substantial period of time?

Here's a realistic option: We can reasonably say that the odds of both parents being out of work at any given point of time in 2006 is comparable to the odds of the father being out of work in 1954. Hence the reliable household income -- the income stream that can service debt without foreclosure -- is approximately 1/2 of the household income. Certainly we can say that there will be "fat" times when both parents are working and they can save money for the lean times -- but then one of the two parents is likely to be making substantially less money than the other, so we can say the savings during the times they are both working can be put toward bringing the lower-earning working parent up to par with the average of the two in terms of making a reliable payment to the mortgage lender.

Hence, making appropriate adjustments we have a household income increase of approximately 7 times since 1954 -- and we haven't taken into account the loss of value of having the full time housekeeper. So let's take that into account as well. What are the real costs to a family with children of having both parents working rather than one dedicated to staying at home? Is it another factor of 2? Probably not. But we can say the income increase is actually only a factor of 5 rather than 7.

Since the cost of the two major debt items has gone up a factor of 18, it looks to me like the real cost of reproduction has gone up by about a factor of 18/4, or a factor of 3 to 4 since I was born.

Our authorities -- nearly to the person -- call this "progress".

Given the demographic collapse followed by mass immigration that ensued, I call it genocide.

Dave said at July 5, 2006 8:31 PM:

intentional genocide James or just stupid leaders?

Its not just the US facing serious demographic collapse, Russia is predicted to have a massive population drop, as well as some Eastern European countries, certainly Western Europe would be in demographic collapse if it wasn't for a mass immigration.

Meanwhile the population of 3rd world states is balloning out of control.

James Bowery said at July 6, 2006 7:42 AM:

Dave, never attribute to stupidity that which can be attributed to unenlightened genetic self-interest.

PacRim Jim said at July 6, 2006 11:12 AM:

Live longer. Your friends and family die. Shouldn't you be lonlier?

Kurt said at July 6, 2006 12:27 PM:

Yes, I think Jim Bowery's numbers are correct and his explanations are spot on about the costs and difficulties of having kids in this "modern" society.

I will add a few more. The politically correct school system that now exists to make all kids equal in knowledge and ability (so that noone will feel bad). The divorice courts (Fred Reed has lots to say on this one - check out www.fredoneverything.net) which are absolutely punitive to the father (most divorices are initiated by the wife). Jim, you did forget about health care, which has gone up even faster than either cars or the house. Kids are quite expensive when it comes to healthcare. The neighbor's kid (who doesn't like you because he made a mess of something and you subsequently forbate him to coming over and playing with your kids) goes home and tells his dad that so-and-so's daddy touched his peepee. You end up with an expensive court case to prove your innocence of child molestation.

Wasn't it so much better in the 70's and 80's when the only thing you had to worry about was the drugs in the schools?

James Bowery said at July 6, 2006 6:21 PM:

Yes I did neglect healthcare costs due to the fact that I didn't have any readily available data for comparison. People play some pretty intense games as it is by claiming things like the "quality of life" is better within the modern houses and urban lands than it was in the 1950s so we should be grateful that our potential wives and daughters are embittered corporate concubines throwing the fetuses of our unborn into the dumpster, (assuming the sperm and egg can ever get together to begin with) and our brothers and sons are shooting drugs if they aren't getting HIV anally injected. It's all "choice" divorced from the economics of vital statistics and basic biological territory.

Brad said at July 12, 2006 10:04 PM:

Perhaps the widening circles of economic interdependence have something to do with it. The fact that we relied on the local shopkeeper for the necessities of life created sentimental bonds that facilitated friendship. When we co-operate with people we form positive feelings about them (look at the famous Robbers Cave experiment). Now that what we consume seems to come out of some great impersonal machine, this is lost.

I have no doubt that the reasons are legion, however.

baylee said at July 13, 2006 4:54 AM:

Perhaps this is ignorant, but I believe that individuals depending on fewer individuals is a positive sign. Adaptive individuals have the opportunity to learn more and to be more creative and efficient when they aren't obliged to follow discrete herds. When individuals must depend on other particular individuals for constant outputs of certain types, economically that's not a good sign. "Lonely Americans" should be celebrating and then get back to business.

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