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Old 07-02-2006, 10:16 PM   #1
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The Lonely American

I would imagine that at least some of these trends exist in other Western countries as well. Are "decline of community" and "social isolation" widespread concerns in Canada, Australia or Europe?

Here's a link to the study itself. Most of what's below is from an essay by's Dick Meyer.
The Lonely States Of America: A Sociology That Should Scare You

June 23, 2006 -- A recent study has found that, on average, most American adults only have two people they can talk to about the most important subjects in their lives—serious health problems, for example, or issues like who will care for their children should they die. And about one-quarter have no close confidants at all. The study's authors, Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears, are sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona. Their unpleasant but long-suspected discovery is that social isolation in America has grown dramatically in the past 20 years.

The authors set out to empirically describe how socially connected Americans are by asking them questions like, "Who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?" They did this as part of the General Social Survey, the Rolls Royce of face-to-face social surveys that has been conducted almost every year since 1972. In 2004, they precisely replicated questions about social networks that had not been asked since 1985.

--From 1985 to 2004, "the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled." Now, 24.6% report they have no confidants, family or non-family—that's 1 in 4 Americans. Another 19.6% say they have just one confidant.

--In 1985, 80% had at least one confidant who was not family; now only 57.2% do.

--The average size of Americans' social networks decreased by a third between 1985 and 2004, from 2.94 to 2.08.

--The kinds of relationships that decreased the most in providing important contacts were neighbors and co-members of groups or voluntary associations (as opposed to spouse, sibling, parent, co-worker, etc.)

--Women have more family in their networks than men, as they did in 1985. But then they had fewer non-kin close relationships than men did. Now women have about the same number of confidants outside family as do men. Unfortunately, that isn't because women have made more contacts outside kin, but because men have fewer.

--More education correlates with having larger social networks. Non-whites and the elderly are populations with smaller networks.

"The number of people who have someone to talk to about matters that are important to them has declined dramatically," Smith-Lovin said. "We've gone from a quarter of the American population being isolated to almost half the population falling into that category. And the kinds of connections we studied are the kinds of people you call on for social support, for real concrete help when you need it. These are the tightest inner circle." Having only one confidant, even if that confidant is a spouse, leaves a person extremely vulnerable if the spouse dies or the marriage disintegrates, she said.

The authors were surprised at the findings and looked for every possible reason why the results could be wrong. They explored whether people have different notions of the word "discuss" or "important" than they did 20 years ago. They looked for technical problems in the survey. But the news stayed bad.

So what explains this seismic social thud?

The paper eliminates a couple suspects. It is not caused by great geographic mobility—the corporate nomad syndrome. It is not caused by employment rates. It does not correlate with increased television watching. Most importantly, it is not caused by the demographic facts that the population is aging and more ethnically diverse; if it were, those trends would have been countered by the increased educational levels since 1985, since education leads to larger networks. That means the answers will be...complicated.

Though they are mostly into documenting, not explaining, the authors do put out a couple of hypotheses, citing, especially, work time and commutes. Both have increased since 1985 and both take time away from families, friends and voluntary participation. As women entered the workforce in bulk, the total number of hours family members spent working outside the home went way up. As people fled the cities, suburbs and exurbs boomed and so did commute times. This especially affects "middle-aged, better-educated, higher-income families." As the paper points out, these are exactly the people who build neighborhoods and volunteer groups and those are the social structures that have most atrophied in the past 20 years.

The more speculative hypothesis is that perhaps new communications technologies have led to people forming wider, but weaker social ties that are less dependent on geography. Six years ago, the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society reported that Internet use was causing social isolation. "The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend in contact with real human beings," according to the institute. On the other hand, E-mail and cheap phone calls have made it easier to stay in frequent, sometimes constant touch with lots of people, no matter where they are. These weak ties are different than the confidant ties that this study measures, but the authors are open to the idea that a network of weaker ties can provide equally meaningful, if different, social support. But they also point out the obvious: "some services and emotional support" do depend on proximity. "E-mailing somebody far away is not the same as them going to pick up your child at daycare or bringing you chicken soup," Smith-Lovin said.

Recent social science research about the decline of civic engagement and community participation has been exceedingly controversial and contested. David Riesman's 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character described the alienating conformity of the new post-war workplace as craftsmen were replaced by organization men. Harvard professor Robert Putnam's 2000 book Bowling Alone found that since the '60s, membership has plummeted in PTAs, unions, clubs and, in accordance with his title, bowling leagues. Putnam also reported long-term declines in civic participation, including charity and blood donations and drops as sharp as 60% in dinner parties, civic meetings, family suppers and picnics. As connections to neighbors and social clubs decline, Smith-Lovin said, "from a social point of view it means you've got more people isolated in a small network of people who are just like them."
Does this study ring true to you? What would be your own speculations as to what the main causes are? Is not having enough of a support system a frequent concern for you or someone you know well, and what in your experience are some of the consequences of that? Which of the kinds of relationships studied (siblings, parents, spouse, coworkers, friends from church or other organizations, "just friends") play the most important role in your "confidant" circle--the people you'd call on "for real concrete help when you need it," as the article puts it? How did/do you meet most of the close friends you have now, and is that a way you think you could count on making new close friends in the future if you had to move far away?

I think the decline in both size and closeness of families must surely be a contributing factor here--coming from a relatively large (4 siblings) and close-knit family, I am often struck by how distant so many people seem to feel from their families and how little they stay in touch with them.

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Old 07-03-2006, 12:24 AM   #2
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That bolding makes that hard to read!

I think Australia has a slightly different problem which faces outward rather than in, of birds of a feather, etc. It seems there is a strengthening of communities within the broader community due to things like ethnicity and income. Individual's outlooks are becoming narrowed as this gap widens.

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Old 07-03-2006, 02:17 AM   #3
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Really? On my monitor it makes it easier to read, but then my astigmatism is pretty terrible. OK, I'll remove most of it.
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Old 07-03-2006, 03:01 AM   #4
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can't really comment in the main, wouldn't really know. I have only one confidant, at best, though... so I guess I'm an example of what they described. I figure, after 25, your chances of making new friends are basically zero. And of your so-called friends, maybe 1% are actually confidants.
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Old 07-03-2006, 05:39 AM   #5
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Yeah...sounds about right...I have 3 people who I consider close friends and one of them is my husband. I used to have alot more people I consider close ...but I tend not to "collect friends" as I get older (28 tomorrow I think its just natural.
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Old 07-03-2006, 08:54 AM   #6
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The statement, "sad, but true" certainly fits concerning this.
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Old 07-03-2006, 09:59 AM   #7
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It's true for me, but not because of their "wider, but weaker" hypothesis. I've always been this way, probably because my family is all independent and we're not super close (and we like it this way). I'm not into online chatting or conversational e-mailing.
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Old 07-03-2006, 12:54 PM   #8
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Well I think the internet proves how lonely people are. I'm not saying that's the only reason people surf the net, visit message boards, etc. But I think it is a main reason.

Technology is increasingly isolating us - how can you talk to someone who is always wearing iPod headphones? I remember the good old days before iPods when you could actually talk to strangers on subways and on the street. Sometimes those simple and brief interactions are critical, and the lack of them makes the world a much colder place. And yet we turn to technology because we feel lonely. You can relate to people via e-mail and all that, but in many instances it is woefully insufficient. But on the other hand you can get to know people that you wouldn't have otherwise. Even if you never get to meet them in person, that interaction can still be special and have meaning. It's all what you make it.
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Old 07-03-2006, 01:42 PM   #9
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i've been thinking about this one, and i have to say that this particular shoe doesn't fit my foot.

i think education has something to do with it, but not so much in degrees acquired (i only have a BA) but in the fact that i went to a small school way up in the woods, and as such created a very close community there that has stayed intact for 6 years at this point. one thing that has become very clear to me over the past 6 years is that there's an emotional investment we have in all our friends, and sometimes this is difficult -- judgements can be rendered swiftly and harshly, and there's a tremendous amount of pressure to be considerate and generous and thoughtful and to make sure that your values are, in a sense, in line with the group (i.e., not only do you go to the wedding, but you work out an estimate of how much was spent per head at the wedding, and then the gift you purchase for the couple should be approximately equal to that) and this of course calls into question the overall genuineness (is that a word?) of some actions and interactions. and issues with my friends, i can discuss with Memphis, and for issues with Memphis, i have a whole bunch of women and even quite a few straight boys who are more than happy to lend an ear, and i can't say how much it means to me that my relationships, past and present, are taken with as much seriousness and respect as any one else's.

but the big advantage is that i can honestly say that i have close to a dozen people that i could tell almost anything to, and i have -- i came out to my friends, first, and to my college friends before my high school friends, and it seemed as if this rather momentous disclosure actually made our bonds stronger and increased everyone's sense of empathy towards each other. i really could not have asked for a more supportive group of people when i was coming out, and this makes me that much more likely to go to them with other issues.

and i actually think the internet plays a large role in this. some of my most intimate moments have come over email, and instant messaging makes casual conversation, the sharing of the fun and the trivial and the immediate, possible with people great distances away and keeps bonds fresh and relevant, whereas before they'd probably disappear due to time and space.

the family issue is interesting as well. i don't view anyone in my family as a potential confidant, though everyone in my family feels a tremendous sense of duty and obligation. being the eldest, i feel this acutely. it's not a terribly emotional investment, on an individual level, but there is a large emotional investment in the family unit as a whole. like LivLuv, we are all very different people, but we'd all lie down in traffic for one another.

so i suppose i feel as if i've got the best of both worlds -- familial solidarity and emotional intimacy.

and i'm glad i wrote this and got it all down on the screen and straight in my head. something to be thankful for.

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Old 07-03-2006, 02:34 PM   #10
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It'a a combination of all the reasons given. When I was a kid (I was born in 1960) our whole block knew each other (I'm talking all the parents as well) - now, when I visit my folks and ask them about it they reply that hardly anyone on the block knows each other. There are a few but overall it's pretty sad. I don't know, but it seems like ever since the 80's there's been almost like an effort made not to destroy but thinly slice social intercourse - hence the stats of the dramatic drop since 1985. I don't know what the heck is going on but it aint what it used to be. I couldn't imagine growing up without knowing my neighbours.
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Old 07-03-2006, 04:01 PM   #11
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That is such a good point, yes neighbors don't talk to or know each other anymore-is there such a thing as neighbors anymore?

When I think about kids/teenagers these days and how they communicate-I've seen TV shows like Dateline in which the kids IM their parents when they are in the house together rather than talk Most of what so many kids know these days about communication is entirely through technology. On the other hand if they can't talk to their parents maybe they can find confidants online where otherwise they might have none or precious few. How real are those confidants? I remember the good old pre-cell phone days too, good times .

I have had some of my best convos through e-mail and IM too and shared things that I don't ever share face to face. My defenses are down and it's easier.

So there are pros and cons to technology, we just need to be aware of the cons and of how we relate to people. You can delude yourself in relationships with people online, but you can also delude yourself in relationships with people you see every day, or talk to on the phone. Humans can always see only the good side of people if that's all the other person shows them, or if that's all they want to see and they want to ignore the rest.
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Old 07-03-2006, 05:36 PM   #12
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Excellent article Yolland. I have heard similar suggestions before regarding the lack of persons close enough to discuss matters of importance. It is sad when even a spouse does not fall within the close circle. The ability to mentor and be mentored in life matters (not just for career advancement) is crucial for personal growth. I have been fortunate to find a couple of close friends with whom I can share matters of importance and here their matters of importance. I’ve learn as much about being a father from one of these friends as I have from my own father.

The idea of the ever mobile society is being used to account for many changes in our lives. I see more of an influence with the ever shortening forms of communication (letters to email to text messaging). The effort it takes to convey an idea can now be reduced to a smilie.

What also struck me when reading the article was another report I recently heard on the news. It dealt with the growing trend toward self-certainty of the younger generations. Perhaps younger people feel so empowered that seeking advice and counsel is unnecessary? The gathering of great amounts of information can be done faster and at a far cheaper cost (in terms of time and exposing of individual vulnerabilities) than one on one, heart to heart communication.
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Old 07-04-2006, 01:59 AM   #13
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The neighbours-not-talking-anymore thing is a tricky one, with many and varied causes I'd guess. I live in a street in a mid-sized Australian city, and the only neighbour in the vicinity of the property where I live who has been there for more than six months, is my elderly co-occupant of this duplex. It has been that way for the six years I've lived here. Which is to say, people move, incessantly they move. Even if it's just to somewhere else within the same town. Obviously not everyone moves, an entire city can't change its population every six months, so I'm reluctant to get too carried away with social rhetoric. But it's there, in the background.

But anyway, you're hardly going to confide in your neighbours, are you? Can I borrow some sugar, and by the way, I'm considering suicide?
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Old 07-05-2006, 11:15 AM   #14
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meh, for me going on the internet isn't a result of lonliness. just boredom/insomnia, and I've met several friends online, yes, "real" people.

in fact I've actually found it easier to confide in people online, I've talked to a few people about things I'd never ever talk to most or all of my "real life" friends about, just because it can be so much easier to talk to someone online than in person to someone you see everyday.

so I dunno if that proves or disproves the point.

I do think there's something to be said for the lack of neighborliness these days, I definitely see that here, basically what Kieran described.
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Old 07-05-2006, 01:08 PM   #15
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A recent study has found that, on average, most American adults only have two people they can talk to about the most important subjects in their lives

What's sad about this to me is the use of the word "only"--I find it sad that people would think that two confidants is not enough. I have about 6 or 7 people I consider close confidants but find that confiding in more than 2 of them on any one subject at a time gets messy. I actually don't want too many opinions on very personal matters and don't want everyone speculating on my stuff with each other, even with the best of intentions. I tend to rely more on my own inner guidance (and in fact, tend to regret whenever I follow another's advice), and I confide different things to different people depending on the emotional intimacy I have with various people on various subjects--i.e., girlfriends for certain things, gay male friends for certain things, older-wiser friends for certain things, etc.

I consider no one in my family a confidant and I am not particularly bothered by that. We're not close but very loyal. We don't know crap about each other's day-to-day lives and disagree on many fundamental issues in life, but in an emergency we'd all be there for each other in a heartbeat.

There have been times over the years, though--like when either I or my close friends relocated, when my best friend died, or when I've had a falling out with a close friend, or people were just unavailable for one reason or another, when I only had 1 close confidante for a certain period and that was quite sufficient. More isn't always better. It's the quality, not quantity, of the close friendships that matter most to me. But I agree that it's sad that so many people seem to have no one.
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Old 07-05-2006, 07:26 PM   #16
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I think that one of the reasons for this is our "car culture". I can get in my car, drive to the supermarket and come back home. My only social encounter would be saying "Thank you" to the cashier. Or I can stroll to a nearby market, chatting with people along the way. Which offers opportunities to interact with neighbors. I don't mean to suggest that quantity equals quality -- but I think that many people are very isolated, and cars, atms, self-checkout lines at stores, communities without sidewalks, and such -- decrease the possibility for social interactions. Which then may decrease the possibility for MEANINGFUL social interactions as well.

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