Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, and a sharply growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide, according to a comprehensive new evaluation of the decline of social ties in the United States.What are the reasons behind the growing isolation?
A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two. . .
Compared with 1985, nearly 50 percent more people in 2004 reported that their spouse is the only person they can confide in. But if people face trouble in that relationship, or if a spouse falls sick, that means these people have no one to turn to for help, Smith-Lovin said.
"We know these close ties are what people depend on in bad times," she said. "We're not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook.com [a popular networking Web site] and e-mail 25 people a day, but they are not discussing matters that are personally important."
. . . Whereas nearly three-quarters of people in 1985 reported they had a friend in whom they could confide, only half in 2004 said they could count on such support. The number of people who said they counted a neighbor as a confidant dropped by more than half, from about 19 percent to about 8 percent.
The results, being published today in the American Sociological Review, took researchers by surprise because they had not expected to see such a steep decline in close social ties.
Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard and the author of Bowling Alone, a book about increasing social isolation in the United States, said the new study supports what he has been saying for years to skeptical audiences in the academy. . . .Not everyone agrees:
Americans go on 60 percent fewer picnics today and families eat dinner together 40 percent less often compared with 1965, he said. They are less likely to meet at clubs or go bowling in groups. Putnam has estimated that every 10-minute increase in commutes makes it 10 percent less likely that people will establish and maintain close social ties.
Television is a big part of the problem, he contends. Whereas 5 percent of U.S. households in 1950 owned television sets, 95 percent did a decade later.
But University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman questioned whether the study's focus on intimate ties means that social ties in general are fraying. He said people's overall ties are actually growing, compared with previous decades, thanks in part to the Internet. Wellman has calculated that the average person today has about 250 ties with friends and relatives.The solutions?
Wellman praised the quality of the new study and said its results are surprising, but he said it does not address how core ties change in the context of other relationships.
"I don't see this as the end of the world but part of a larger puzzle," he said. "My guess is people only have so much energy, and right now they are switching around a number of networks. . . . We are getting a division of labor in relationships. Some people give emotional aid, some people give financial aid."
Putnam and Smith-Lovin said Americans may be well advised to consciously build more relationships. But they also said social institutions and social-policy makers need to pay more attention.Wow. While this report doesn’t surprise me, the staggering figures it carries shock me. That’s a lot of people out there who have either no one or only a small cadre of people to depend on.
"The current structure of workplace regulations assumes everyone works from 9 to 5, five days a week," Putnam said. "If we gave people much more flexibility in their work life, they would use that time to spend more time with their aging mom or best friend."
And there’s not one mention of religion or churches. I’m not surprised, but the first thing I wondered was how many of the people contacted attend church? Some say 44% in America regularly attend church services. George Barna says 34% never attend church. What percentage of those with no one to rely on attended church? What percentage of those with only their spouse to rely on attend church? I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant portion of those contacted—and those in growing isolation—attend a church regularly. Community is an aspect many churches struggle with creating. I’d also like to see the differences between the South and the rest of the country, as church is more a way of life in this area. Does it make a difference? I hope someone in the Christian media picks up this one and delves a little deeper. Maybe someone has—let me know if you see anything.
I wish I had more time to blog on this (I think this is hugely signficant with many implications), but I'm in the midst of our family's two-week vacation. So, here's one last observation: this question of how we do church—how we are to live with each other and those around us as Jesus’ followers—is oh-so-very-significant. It plays directly into issues like these. Churches themselves aren’t the answer, but how we live out Jesus’ commands to love God and love others is. That is a central issue the emerging discussion is dealing with, and this study is yet another reason I find to believe with urgency that these issues are crucial to helping us become the kind of people God desires—and to reach a world that is falling apart.
(Image: Alexandralee at flickr.com)