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• Last updated: August 21, 2021

Podcast #726: What’s Causing the Male Friendship Recession?

According to a recent survey, the percentage of men with at least six close friends has fallen by half since 1990, and men today are 5X more likely to say they don’t even have a single close friend than they were thirty years ago.

What are the reasons for this seeming friendship recession among men? Today I talk to the man who conducted that survey to try to find out. His name is Daniel Cox and he’s the director of the Survey Center on American Life. Today on the show Daniel takes us on a tour of the state of friendship among modern men, beginning with the fact that men today have fewer friends and feel less emotionally connected to the ones they do have. We explore the irony that while people have long said that traditional norms of masculinity are what’s holding men back from having fulfilling relationships, it’s younger men, who are more progressive on those norms, who are struggling the most to make friends. Daniel talks about the fact that the male friendship recession isn’t pandemic related, but rather seems to be linked to the weakening of ties to community institutions like church, the changing nature of work, and the fact that Americans are spending more and more time with their families. From there we go down a bunch of interesting avenues, including the fact that husbands rely more on their wives for emotional support than vice versa, why Daniel finds it concerning that young men today are more likely to first talk about their problems with their parents rather than their friends than was true 30 years ago, and the irony that single men are struggling the most to make friends even though they need them the most.

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Read the Transcript!

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. According to a recent survey, the percentage of men with at least six close friends has fallen by half since 1990 and men today are five times more likely to say they don’t even have a single close friend than they were 30 years ago.

 What are the reasons for this seeming friendship recession among men? Today, I talk to the man who conducted that survey to try to find out. His name is Daniel Cox and he’s the director of the Survey Center on American Life. Today on the show, Daniel, takes us on a tour of the state of friendship among modern American men, beginning with the fact that men today have fewer friends and feel less emotionally connected to the ones they do have. We explore the irony that while people have long said that traditional norms and masculinity are what’s holding men back from having fulfilling relationships, it’s younger men, who are more progressive on those norms, who are struggling the most to make friends.

Daniel talks about the fact that the male friendship recession isn’t pandemic-related but rather seemed to be linked to the weakening of ties to community institutions like church, the changing nature of work, and the fact that Americans are spending more and more time with their families. From there, we go down a bunch of interesting avenues, including the fact that husbands rely more on their wives for emotional support than vice versa, why Daniel finds it concerning that young men today are more likely to first talk about their problems with their parents rather than with their friends than what’s true 30 years ago, and the irony that single men are struggling the most to make friends even though they need them the most. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/friendshiprecession.

[music]

Brett McKay:Alright, Daniel Cox, welcome to the show.

Daniel Cox: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you did a recent survey for the Survey Center on American Life and it was about friendship, and you found that Americans, overall, have fewer friends than they did a few decades ago. But where things get really interesting is how things break down across gender lines. How does this decline compare in men versus women? What are the numbers there? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, so we looked back over about three decades and one of the things we did with these polls is we looked at what the Gallup Survey had done in 1990. That was one of the most recent times they had done a survey on friendship. It’s not a topic that gets polled a lot and we looked at the numbers there and we replicated some of their questions, and we found really massive declines in the number of close friends that Americans reported having. So in 1990, 55% of men had at least six close friends, so six or more, and then on our latest poll, only 27%, about half as many, had that many friends.

Brett McKay: That’s fair. And was the decline in women as stark? 

Daniel Cox: No, it was… There was a decline, it was a double-digit decline, from 41% down to 24, but not nearly as stark as for the men. The other thing is, looking at the other side, we found that 15% of men today have no close friends, including about one in five young men, and so that really stood out to us. So they have no one who they feel… No friends who they felt really close to.

Brett McKay: What was that number like in 1990? 

Daniel Cox: Only 3%, so a five-fold increase over that time period.

Brett McKay: Okay, and we’ll talk some more what we think is going on with the decline in number of friends, but the other thing the survey hit was that not only do men have fewer friends than they did in 1990 but they report being less emotionally connected to the friends they do have. And so we’ve had guests on the podcast, researchers who’ve studied friendship, male friendship in particular, and this idea of emotional connectivity. The argument they’ve made is that maybe it’s not that useful because men and women, they socialize differently. Men tend to do things more shoulder-to-shoulder, based around an activity, women have more of that face-to-face emotional connection, and so comparing male and female friends isn’t useful. It is an unfair comparison. So does it matter if men aren’t as emotionally connected to their friends as long as they have friends? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, so I have some thoughts on this and particularly as a father, I’m raising two boys, a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and thinking about their social development, their friendships, and what I want for them. And while I understand that that’s a common idea that we shouldn’t compare and there’s some differences there, I think that it misses the mark a bit and this idea that men and women somehow need different things from their friends is not quite right. I think both men and women benefit when they have close intimate relationships with their friends.

In our survey, in fact, both men and women were less likely to feel alone, to feel depressed or anxious when they had that kind of emotional support from their friends. So it matters and men and women are equally likely to want these things, and we know this that just men seek it out more from the women in their life than the men. So men with female friends are more likely to have emotional support and to get emotional support from their friends. And we know that married men are much more likely to lean on their spouse whereas married women will lean on their spouse but also look to their friendship network to support them.

And so I think there’s this really interesting argument that my former colleague, Arthur Brooks, makes and I think he makes it quite persuasively when he argues that what makes all of us happy is having a stable affection, mutual understanding, and commitment, and this is what the best research tells us. And I think he was talking in terms of romantic relationships but it’s true for friendships as well. Good friendships can offer all these things, and so I think to argue that men somehow don’t need this and don’t need to make these kind of emotional or intimate connections, I categorically reject it. I think that men are perfectly capable of expressing and experiencing the entire array of human emotions, we’re just socialized in ways to make us think it’s unnecessary or it feels uncomfortable.

Brett McKay: And we’ll get into more where men get that emotional support. As you mentioned, usually it’s women, some sort of woman, whether it’s family member or their wife, but another argument I’ve heard is that one of the reasons men struggle more than women to make friends is because there’s this idea of traditional masculinity that prevents them from doing so, the idea that men shouldn’t be vulnerable, and that’s what’s keeping them from making friends. Did the survey reveal anything that either supports or calls into question that hypothesis? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, no, I think this is a really interesting and perhaps a bit of a thorny question. When I look at my social media feed in response to this, I see liberals and conservatives lining up in different camps. I think conservatives would argue that modern culture has effeminized men in ways that makes it more difficult for men to engage in traditionally masculine activities or pastimes, there are fewer all-male spaces and societally we’re less accepting of men getting together and doing this kind of thing. I don’t find that terribly convincing. And liberals, conversely, argue that it is this idea of toxic masculinity and that’s the root of the problem. Men are socialized to avoid showing affection particularly to other men, and that stops them from forming more intimate connections with their male friends. And I think there’s something there, although it’s not the entire story.

From the early age, it’s well known that women are socialized to be more nurturing and relationship-oriented than men, and men are taught to perceive intimacy with other men as effeminate or weak or unmanly, and then perhaps unnecessary. And I think homophobia probably plays a role in here somewhere, and I think it’s also true that notions of masculinity reduce the range of even accepted activities that men can engage with. When two men are going out to dinner together one-on-one, we think about it differently than if it’s a man and a woman or two women getting together, and we’ve even developed some kind of derogatory terminology to describe it. It’s a man date.

Brett McKay: But I don’t know. I look… So I’ve studied, looked at male friendship for a long time… My grandfather. Okay. So if you’re born after 1980, you seemingly grew up in a period where there was sort of a more of a progressive ideal of masculinity. You got away from the traditional norms, you learned about… You’re steeped in this about being vulnerable, sharing your feelings, etcetera, etcetera, and do you think that would help men have more friends today, but we have less friends than our grandfathers who they were steeped in traditional ideas of masculinity or even our great grandfather. If you go back to the 19th century, you see these letters between men friends, and it was almost like a romance letter. So I don’t know… What do you think is going on there? I see that, I’m like, Well, we’re seemingly more progressive about what it means to be a man, but we’re still… We have worse problems making friends than our grandfathers or great-grandfathers.

Daniel Cox: Yeah. I think that’s totally right, and it’s one of the things where I would not think that this is the entire story here, and why I preface that. My comments there, looking at our data, if you look at how younger men identify in terms of their masculinity, they’re less likely to identify as traditionally masculine. But it’s younger men who struggle most in forming and maintaining friendships. So this idea that if we can just fix culturally, this idea of toxic masculinity, things would suddenly be better, I think is not the entire story, and I think we have to look to the institutions, the ways and the places men made friends, whether it’s church or local civic engagement, all the different ways people can meet.

One of the interesting things in our poll, is we found that people are most likely to make close friends now at work, not through existing friends, not in their neighborhood, it’s the workplace. And there used to be a really vibrant, locally-focused sort of community that people could go into and engage with, people were friends, with their neighbors. I think that all this kind of decline is playing a role in our ability to create and maintain friendships.

Brett McKay: I wanna talk about the work component in a bit here ’cause also, I think the pandemic and the whole work from home thing has probably thrown a wrench in that. But another thing we’ve heard is… And researchers have found is that women tend to be more willing to put in the effort in cultivation and maintenance of friendships more than men are. But do we know why that is? Were you able to find anything out there with your survey? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah. We didn’t look at that specifically. I do think it’s true that the poll found that men are engaged in activity-based friendship, they have a lot of these friends, whether it’s online, you asked about online playing video games, younger men are much more likely to do this than just about anyone. But one of the issues there, I think is particularly when you’re thinking about getting together for sports or hobbies, hunting, all that stuff requires a lot of time and planning and logistics, much more so than just picking up the phone. So the more intimate communication-based relationships that women are nurturing with their friends are probably just easier to maintain. It’s just different if you’re sort of saying, Hey, now we’ve gotta get together around doing a certain activity, first and foremost, the person has to live relatively close by, and given how far flung we’ve all become, I think that creates an added hurdle.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that, the role of geographic mobility. So that’s one dynamic we’ve heard might be playing a role in the friendship recession amongst men, but the one thing I’ve heard and maybe your survey found something different is that compared to previous generations, millennials are moving less. So you think, Okay, if they’re moving less, they’re able to establish some sort of roots, they’re able to make friends. So geographic mobility doesn’t play a role, but did your survey find anything different? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah. So I think that’s right. So geographic mobility, we know it’s harmful to establishing and maintaining social connections. So if you move a lot, and any kid that moved around a lot growing up knows this deep down. It’s really hard to maintain friendships if you’re moving around a lot. It’s probably less so than it once was with the rise of social media, texting and messaging and all that. But one of the big things that happens when you move is you become disconnected. You detach from the local institutions, the clubs, places of worship, which are really important ways for us to maintain close connections with other people. And one of the things that I think is not really paid attention to a lot is unlike marriage and our other familial relationships, there’s not a lot of structure in friendships, it’s sort of whatever you wanna make of it. So I think when they’re structured through membership in an institution or a club, that’s really beneficial. And so I think when people move, you become kind of uprooted. And one of the things that we know that’s true with men, particularly young men, is they’re far less likely to be attached to a religious community than previous generations until older men and women. And so that is a real loss in terms of being able to establish social connections with folks.

Brett McKay: So, are millennials moving less? I mean, did you guys find that in your survey? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, I think the best evidence suggests that yeah, comparatively, depending on how you wanna define millennials, they’re not moving around a lot. They are shifting jobs more…

Brett McKay: Okay.

Daniel Cox: Than the previous generations, that is true. But in terms of geographic mobility, I think it’s probably a little bit less.

0:13:27.8 BM: But still the job mobility, we’ll call it job mobility could be disrupting friendship formation.

Daniel Cox: Absolutely. And again, if we are disproportionately relying on the workplace for our social life, yeah, that’s gonna be hugely disruptive.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this work and friends, most, lot of friends… It sounds like a lot of friendships are made and they’re situation based. So there’s church, there’s club and a big one is work. Have you guys been able to figure out how the emphasis on using work as a way to make friends? How has that impacted American friendship with men? 

Daniel Cox: Well, one of the things I think is gonna be something worth watching is what happens when more Americans wanna work remote, at least part of the time, what happens to workplace culture? What happens in DC? A big thing is happy hours, going out and grabbing a drink with your coworkers and to complain about your boss or whatever. And if that happens less often, that becomes less routinized, that’s going to be a real loss. And I think it’s something that probably a lot of people haven’t thought through that, when you’re remote, and I’ve been remote for almost 18 months now. You just see people less often, I mean, I see my spouse a whole heck of a lot. But my friends, I see significantly less. And, even some of the kind of incidental contact and conversations you have with your coworkers, there’s value in that.

And I think, even if it’s more of a friendly acquaintanceship versus a friendship, losing those I think are really important for us to think about when we think about the transition that we’re making here. And we have a new poll out just recently that looked at the employment situation and desire for remote work. And we’re seeing actually that, I think there’s this idea that a lot of people wanna work remotely, they want the flexibility. And there’s some truth to that. But there was a significant number of Americans, I think it’s more than four in ten, who actually said that in-person work with their colleagues was their ideal work situation. And then the next most popular was, some flexibility. So some amount of remote work, but still largely based in office and the minority view was a full on remote. So I think there is some sense that people value that kind of in-person interaction that a workplace can provide.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned church was a place where a lot of people make friends. And I think we’ve all read the articles that in America religiosity has been declining for the past… Steeply, I think in the past 10 years. I mean, what is the number? Do you have any grasp of the numbers of how sharp the decrease, particularly amongst men? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, it’s pretty significant. Actually, my dissertation was on this topic, looking at the decline in religiosity among millennials. And if you look at the early 1990s, that’s when the shift began to happen. It was around 5% or 6% of Americans had no formal religious affiliation. Now it’s up about to about one in four among young adults under the age of 30, it’s closer to 40% and I think for young men, it’s closer to half. So, it’s stark and certainly some of those folks who don’t identify religiously, may still be connected to a church or a congregation through their family sort of being culturally connected. But by and large, they’re not going often. There’s a strong correlation between not having a formal religious identity and not going to church or religious services.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve got a few friends who stopped going to church and they say, the one thing they miss the most, they didn’t realize they miss the most it’s just I’ve got, a built-in social network, I can go someplace and I could at least have a chance to make some friends. It’s like now it’s hard. I feel like just I had to build that up on my own. So that’s one thing they typically regret the most about not going to church.

Daniel Cox: Right. Yeah. And I have a friend at work who went to law school and he’s a member of the LDS Church, and one of the things that he talked about was how welcoming everyone was when he joined a new church. And people were immediately coming over and introducing themselves, asking him if he needed anything and that you have kind of a built-in community, no matter where you go. And I think that’s a big loss man, we could talk for a whole episode about religious decline and what that means socially, civically, politically, but I think it is, when we think about our declining social connections, that’s a big piece of it.

Brett McKay: Well, that was also disrupted by the pandemic for a while, a lot of churches were going online doing remote or had pared back services significantly. So did you guys do a survey what the pandemic did to friendships? Did that cause a decline in the number of friends or feeling that people had friends? Did that decline as well? 

Daniel Cox: So we did a really interesting survey project in the middle of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. And it did affect our social lives. And there’s no doubt and we did this survey that looked at people’s social networks. And so how we got at this was we asked people to name up to seven different people in their life, who they talked to about important problems in the last six months. So these are people who were close, these weren’t people who were just, Joe or Jane coworker or an acquaintance. These are people who had a close connection to the person and then we… Some people mentioned three people, some mentioned four, and one of the things we saw is that this was also done in 2013, it was a pretty steep decline in the number of these close social connections people had, people’s social networks we found were shrinking, and we asked in the survey, ’cause we were in this pandemic, how much of this is due to the pandemic? 

So people who mentioned they had zero close social connections and only about a third said it was directly due to the pandemic, so for two-thirds of people, there’s larger forces at play here than just being quarantined and socially isolated for over 12 months.

Brett McKay: Alright, so situational… There’s like… One of the reasons that it’s causing a decline in male friendships is the situations have changed, people are relying on work for friends instead of neighborhoods or civic organizations or church, but work, jobs can be mobile ’cause you’re constantly changing jobs, so you don’t have a chance to maintain or just even establish friends. Another factor I’ve heard that’s playing a role in the decline of friendship, is that people are spending more time with their families than with their friends than people did in the past. Did your survey find anything about that? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, so this is something that I looked at and other people looked at as well, and particularly for parents, and I speak as one of a parent of young children, the amount of time parents are investing in their children has increased dramatically, and that just, it simply takes away time from other things you might do from your hobbies, from your work, from your friends, and so that’s a big, big piece of the puzzle that we are focusing much more on our families, our spouses, than we were previously. Some of this might have to do with the millennial generation being sort of socialized and ’cause that’s the cohort that is having… Establishing families right now, socialized to really be emphasizing families, but I think there’s some evidence that that might actually be changing now. Again, in this more recent survey, and we asked the question about what is essential for living a fulfilling life, what kind of things? 

 Is it you’re your being married, is it having just a romantic partner or is it children, is it having a good job, is it money? And then we also asked whether it was friends. And more Americans mentioned having good friends was essential for living a fulfilling life than anything else, than being married, than having kids, having a good job. So that like what people think about the essential ingredients for a good life is changing. I don’t know how quickly people will act on it, ’cause one of the interesting things, there’s some dissonance there, we say, we talk a big game about the importance of friends, but then we don’t actually devote the time towards it. Like if you look at the American time use survey, which just looks at how people are spending their time, we devote very little time to our friends compared to other relationships. And it’s actually, according to at least the time use survey, that’s shrinking over the last decade or so.

Brett McKay: Well, to the topic of men spending more time with their family, particularly for that emotional support than with their friends, I think there was a part of your survey that found that young men are more likely to go talk to their parents about a personal problem then first take their problem to their friends, what was the numbers there like? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, so this was one of the more worrisome things in the poll for me, that we found that 36% of young men go to their parents first when facing a personal problem compared to 24% of young women. And young men are much less likely to rely on their friends than they used to, and as a parent, I think parents are kind of great, they are the people that provide us with unconditional love and support, they are ready and willing to hopefully support us financially and emotionally, but it’s also a unique relationship, and it’s not an equal relationship either, where there’s the idea of reciprocity, giving and getting in roughly equal measure, and that’s what friendship really requires, and so, if young men are getting this stuff from their parents, their parents aren’t gonna be around forever and again, it’s a unique relationship.

So I think it could be hampering their ability to establish social connections with their peers, and the big thing, and one of the reasons I think that this is so high now, is that more young people are living at home than any time since the Great Depression, and that’s largely due to the economic circumstances and COVID, so more than 52, or more than half, 52% of young adults are living at home, it’s greater among younger men, and I think this close proximity to their parents makes them more inclined to seek out their support and advice first as opposed to their friends.

Brett McKay:And do you think this could be an issue ’cause it’s not allowing them to grow as a man? 

Daniel Cox:Yeah, just to establish their own social networks, to build them out, that’s sort of the… One of the important parts of being an adult is establishing your own relationships, figuring out what works, what doesn’t work, and so I think that more than anything is why it’s really problematic.

Brett McKay:The other thing too is, I don’t… I mean this might sound kind of mean, but I think parents might not have any good answers for you [chuckle] ’cause they’ve had a completely different experience, and so if you’re going to them like, “I can’t get a job.” And your dad, who like got a factory job right out of high school and retired and has a pension, what is your dad gonna tell you? “Well, go out there, hit the pavement and you’ll find a job”, and it’s like, “Well, that’s not how it works now.”

Daniel Cox: Right, romantic relationships or anything, like yeah, your peers are really, really important and all this stuff, in navigating all the things that we have to learn in adulthood. Parents can provide a really helpful backdrop, but I think it’s our peers or our friends that really allow us to grow.

Brett McKay: Yeah, dating. I don’t have any… I don’t think I have any good advice for dating for my kids. [chuckle] Tinder, I don’t know what’s your profile picture? I have no clue. What do you do when you get ghosted? I have no idea. That sounds terrible.

Daniel Cox: And there are some things you probably just don’t wanna share with your parents, that’s totally understandable. And so I think, yeah, to the extent that men can, again, establish their own relationship with their friends, I think that will be important for the rest of their lives. And we know this like that we know that friendship matters for the entire duration of your life, it’s not just important for when you’re young or before you get married, there is in fact, some research that says among seniors, friendship becomes even more important than family relationships.

Brett McKay: So besides going to their parents for emotional support, if they’re married, men will tend to go to their spouses first before they go to a friend about a problem. How has that changed from previous decades? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, so we know that in our survey, Americans are talking to their spouse first when they have a problem, and that’s more than anyone else. Not surprising, it’s a unique relationship, but we found the number of people relying on a spouse increased by 10 points over the last 30 or so years. So men rely on their spouse more than women do, and there’s a 20-point gap there. So women will… Many women will go to a friend first or a family member, whereas men were all nearly exclusively reliant on their spouse.

Brett McKay: And is that because men feel they can’t go to a friend about this stuff and they just gotta go to their wife? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah. And I think the intimacy that women have with a number of different people, a lot of men only have with their spouse. And I think this is the problem, returning to what we were talking about earlier, it puts a lot of pressure on wives to be the absolute everything in terms of emotional and personal support. If I can’t have these difficult conversations, if I can’t get the emotional support from a friend, oh, I’ve gotta get it from somewhere, or I don’t get it at all, which is this entirely different problem. But it puts a lot more strain on a marriage when you can’t… When your wife has to be everything for you, so I think that’s something to really consider. Men do their wives the favor by reaching out and having good friendships, so they have a broader group of folks to rely on when things get tough.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, that’s one of the advice that I give dudes who get married. When you first get married, I feel there is a tendency, “I just wanna spend time with my wife. She’s awesome, she’s great.” There’s that honeymoon, but at a certain point, you have to start making male friends. It’s gonna be better for your relationship if you do.

Daniel Cox: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: So another thing I’ve heard and read from friendship experts is that one of the reasons that men tend to have fewer friends than women is that men tend to rely on their wives for their social networks. So I can see why that would result in a less robust social network. ‘Cause you just have this one person who’s providing your social calendar, but it did provide some connection, so there is a benefit there. One thing I thought of as I was reading through your survey that could also be contributing to the decline in male friendship today, is that men today are getting married later or they’re not getting married at all. So you have this double whammy going on, you have men who aren’t prioritizing friendship themselves trying to make friendships on their own, and they don’t have a wife for those social connections either.

Daniel Cox: Yeah, no. I think that that is something that we found in our data, that single men particularly had significantly fewer friends than married men and to single women. So marriage, I think, is often set up as kind of an antagonist or set up in opposition to friendship, but really marriage can benefit for the reason we talked about, you suddenly gain a lot of social connections through your spouse. A lot of us will meet additional friends through our spouse, our spouse’s work. So there’s a lot of social benefit that is gained from getting married, and we actually see this interestingly, that men are more likely to value marriage right now, and say that it’s essential than women are, which is really interesting and I think it’s because men receive so much from marriage. They get someone they are emotional connected with, someone who’s committed to their welfare and well-being. And then women are like, “Yeah, I get this from my marriage, but I also get this from my friends.” And that is something that men are lacking, or at least a lot of men are lacking.

Brett McKay: Yeah and also when you get married, typically you have kids, it’s often something you do. And having kids is another way to expand your social networks, you’re gonna get involved in scouts, at the school, you might coach peewee baseball or whatever. And so you might not become best friends with the parents, but you at least put yourself in a situation where friendships could be made.

Daniel Cox: Yeah, absolutely. We’re in a phase right now that we do play dates every weekend, so we’re hanging out and talking with their parents and doing the brunch thing where the kids are playing in the other room, and it’s great. And what happens, I think when we get older and our lives get really busy is we kind of put friendships on, we add them on to things we’re already doing and fit into our lives, and that’s… Those are are kind of friendships that we create and maintain, and there’s value there, they may not become really intimate friends or a close friend, or even a best friend, but there’s still a lot of value in those relationships.

Brett McKay: Have you… In your survey, did you figure out what people are doing if they don’t have friends, they’re not married, they don’t have kids, what… Are people just like they just go to their house and just sit by themselves, what do people do? 

Daniel Cox: They’re… Haven’t you heard they’re fixing up old vans and driving them across the country.

[chuckle]

Brett McKay: Looking for friends.

Daniel Cox:Yeah, I think that there’s research that shows the amount of time we’ve spent in the office and on our work has increased pretty significantly, so we’re definitely pouring more time into work. We just, again, had this new survey come out and people are engaged not only in full-time jobs, but pursuing side hustles as well, and so I think we’ve been kind of oriented to think that that’s what you need to be successful.

You need to have a good job and career, you need to get married, you need to start a family, and now we’re starting to think like, “Well, there’s a lot else out there.” And friends are becoming a more important part of the equation. And ironically that at the very moment we need more friends, our social circles are shrinking, as you mentioned, where the average age of marriage now, I think for men is 30 and for women it’s 28. And so we’re single longer, and for single people, friends are really the most important relationship for the most part that we have, and we have just fewer of them. And so it’s really challenging. I think it’s why you are seeing… One of the reasons, anyway, you’re seeing these increased levels of loneliness and social isolation and depression, and anxiety among young people, it is like we haven’t emphasized, I think societally and given the tools for people to build and establish lifelong friendships.

Brett McKay: Okay, so this idea that people, they’re saying they want friends or friends are gonna be important, this goes to a question I’ve been trying to mull over… Well, I have been mulling over for the past few years, ’cause every time I have like these loneliness experts come on the podcast, they always define loneliness, it’s a subjective feeling, so you could… The idea, you can be surrounded with six friends and still feel lonely and isolated, or you can just have one friend and you feel like, Well, this is great, I hit the jackpot, I got this one friend. And your survey kind of hinted at it that this is… Something like, this is going on. So I think one of the things you found is that Americans with one close friend feel just as lonely or isolated, as those without any close friends, those with two friends only feel a little less lonely than those with no friends, and people with three or fewer friends still regularly feel lonely and isolated.

But I read that like, Man, you got three friends that should be plenty and something you’d be happy with, but a lot of people don’t seem to be. And your survey you found that only about half of Americans feel satisfied with the number of friends, and for men less than half are satisfied, and so this gets the question, okay, some people have friends, but even with the friends they have, they’re not happy with it. Do we maybe have too high expectations of what friendship should look like, like the number of friends we have and what our friendship should be like with that person, and because those expectations aren’t met, we feel lonely. Does That makes sense.

Daniel Cox: Yeah, there is a lot to unpack here, and this was among the most surprising findings in the poll, this idea that you need a lot of friends in terms of forestalling loneliness and social isolation, depression, anxiety, that it is not just having a best friend or even one or two close friends that matters, you need to have a few… And the survey didn’t get this directly, but I have some theories for why that is, and one of which is, it may take given the busyness of our lives, it may take having access to more than one friend to really get the benefit, you may have a friend who is busy. You may have a friend who’s married with kids may not be able to… May not be available when you need them. And so I think having a broader social network is really important. The other thing that I think, and this is not something that I’ve seen a lot, and maybe you have some perspective on this too, is that friendship groups are something that I’m increasingly interested in and maybe that friendship group offer some considerable personal benefit.

 One person can initiate a get-together, group pressure may convince people to come who otherwise may have found an excuse not to, and in order to have a friendship group, you need more than two, you need probably more than three, and so I think there is some benefit there and we know from our survey that a significant number of Americans have friendship groups where people know each other, and that is a significant benefit to folks, and so I think that is something to think about as well in terms of our expectations and whether they are realistic, I think social media in so many is not our friend, if you will excuse the expression. That we see these people out having fun doing really great things, people are all together. Instagram is horrible in this way, and yeah, there’s the idea like, Wow, my friends don’t do this, or I don’t… Seem to have the same kind of connection. I don’t seem to be laughing as much when I’m hanging out with my friends, and so I think it can give us kind of a tilted view when it comes to what we should expect from friendship.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that is going on. I think our expectations are too high for friendship, and we are just… We are always gonna be disappointed. From your survey, were you able to get any insights from people who have fulfilling friendships, what are they doing differently than those who don’t have fulfilling friendships? 

Daniel Cox:One of the things that we did a little analysis of people who have best friends, and one of the questions that we asked, Well, what makes this person your best friend? So we actually allowed respondents to say in their own words what it was that made this friend special and unique, and it was really interesting how many people mentioned how long they had known this person, so longevity was really a key part of it, and I think it just takes time to build up intimacy and connection. And so people talk about the shared language among friends and that you don’t need to talk often, but you need to talk, you need to have a similarity drawing from the same experiences, so I think that’s kind of a crucial component. Yes, you can develop tight relationships, maybe over a year or two, but those people who are your best friends, those really close relationships have been around a while.

Brett McKay: Okay, so obviously the intent of this survey is to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, you’re just trying to get people a general lay of the land of friendship in America today, but are there any policy changes or institutional changes or just general takeaways you hope people walk away with after they read your survey results? 

Daniel Cox: Yeah, so professionally, I’m agnostic on policy. I know I work in Washington DC where everything is political, so I really try to stay out of recommending or wanting policy changes, but obviously when it comes to something so basic as friendship, I would love to see groups pick it up from with it. We have identified a pretty significant issue, I think, and we are gonna produce more research on this topic in the future, so definitely stay tuned, but for me, I’ve been a researcher my entire life, I have been doing polling from in my 20s onward, and so I don’t really get involved in the policy debates, nor do I have actually any good ideas about the correct interventions other than, again, culturally, societally, we should just emphasize friendship, we should say, Hey, you know what? Marriage is great, yeah. There’s a lot of great things about marriage, but if you’re looking to build a complete life, you’ve really gotta spend some time and think about friendships.

And employers should too, and church leaders should as well, they should think about friendship in the way that people practice it, in the way that people think about it. So meet them where they are and not try to prescribe something to them.

Brett McKay: Well, I think the takeaway too, just listening to you talking about the different changes in friendship is, okay, people seem to be putting an emphasis on friendship, but I think the big takeaway is, well, if you want friends, it’s kinda on you now. There’s no longer those institutions that basically support friendship. Yeah, you have work, but work is constantly shifting. Your fellow co-worker could leave jobs or you could leave jobs. A lot of people aren’t going to church. If you’re not gonna do that, you have to be really intentional about it and make it happen for yourself.

Daniel Cox: Yeah, no, I think that is at the heart of this thing, yeah. Friendships are really unique in that way that there’s not the same kind of a structure, I think as I mentioned earlier. They are completely voluntary and they come in a wide variety. And something else I would mention too is that a friendship doesn’t have to provide you with everything. It doesn’t have to be the most intimate, the most connected friendship to be worthwhile and to be of value. And so, I’m talking about from my own experience, these friends with the parents we’ve made through our kid’s daycare, and for a lot of these folks, yeah, we probably won’t become close close friends, but the friendship and the community we get are just invaluable to us.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think that’s a good point. I think a lot of times, people, when they look for a friend, they’re looking for a friend that will hit all their sweet spots and their interests and have a lot of in common. But it’s okay to have friends who are, “Okay, this is my work friend and this is my Pee Wee Baseball parent friend, this is my gym friend.” You don’t have to have everything in common to be a friend.

Daniel Cox: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Well, Daniel, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the survey and your work? 

Daniel Cox: I would absolutely encourage you to… We’re very active on Twitter. I’m @dcox, C-O-X, polls, so you can find our work there, and then on our website as well. We are at americansurveycenter.org.

Brett McKay: Fantastic, well, Daniel Cox, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Daniel Cox: Thank you so much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Daniel Cox. He’s the Director of the Survey Center on American Life. You can find out the survey that we discussed today at americansurveycenter.org. It’s under the title “American Men Suffer a Friendship Recession”. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/friendshiprecession, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that have been written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com. Sign up, use code, “Manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher App on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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