Why is Friendship on the Decline?

Friendship is not yet an endangered species, but it is on the wane. Studies in the US and France both found that people are spending less time with friends, neighbors, and relatives.

The amount of hours worked, not surprisingly, seems to have to do something with this pattern, since a reduction in the workweek in France led to an uptick in social time.

But the researchers seem to miss another pattern: it isn’t just hours but priorities. At least in the US, for many people a job is not just a job, it’s a much more important part of their identity than it used to be, and perhaps than it is in other cultures.

One phenomenon that is very common in New York, and I assume in other large cities, is that people are very casual about canceling social engagements at the last minute for work-related reasons. I used to be good about sticking with my plans, but I felt like a chump (I cut way back on my entertaining when a number of people cancelled on a dinner party the same day. This was in the 1980s, and things have only gotten worse since then). Peoples’ actions said that seeing me wasn’t a high priority, so why should I treat them better than I was being treated?

That sort of casualness degrades social ties in ways that might not be easily captured but I have found are corrosive. And you can still have a competitive economy without having that degree of subservience to work. In Australia, “mateship” is valued very highly and people place much more emphasis on their social life. But Australia has tougher labor laws than the US; it’s harder to fire people. Might there be a connection between job security and emphasis on social interaction? Most Americans I know are afraid to say no to work demands.

The French example would seem to say dispute that since France has strong unions and are stereotyped as have strong boundaries between their work and personal lives. Have enough of them caught the Anglo-Saxon disease to shift the culture a bit?

From VoxEU:

People have fewer friends and visit them less often than in the past. A popular explanation suggests that we’re working longer and have less time for friends, but recent research finds little tradeoff between working hours and social hours. The relevant tradeoffs, this column suggests, are between types of social interaction.

Do you know who your friends are? Have you seen them lately? Data from both the United States and France show that some important forms of social interaction are on the decline (Putnam 1996; Blanpain and Pan Ké Shon 1998). While membership in social groups has remained relatively stable over time, there has been a decline in visiting friends, neighbours, and relatives. This decline in visiting is not simply due to friends switching to email communication and socializing at work. Evidence of a true decline in friendship is provided by McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Brashears (2006), who document a decline in the reported number of close friends over the past 20 years. Understanding the determinants of the decline in visiting has attracted interest in both the academic literature and in the popular press. It raises concerns on both sides of the Atlantic because social interaction is thought to have positive effects on the mental and physical health of individuals and the efficiency of economic institutions.

Are work and friends complements or substitutes?

An intuitively plausible reason offered for the recent decline in social interaction is growth in hours of work per capita. In particular, the increase in female labour force participation has increased hours of work per capita, which could result in less social interaction. However, it has also been argued that individuals who work longer hours are more inclined to both civic engagement and visiting with friends and neighbours. This could occur if there were an important unobserved third factor such as ambition that affects both working hours and social contacts. For example, an individual who is ambitious may choose to work long hours and to participate in civic organisations and meet with friends and neighbours more than a less ambitious individual. In this case, hours of work and social interaction would be positively related.

The theory of household production, developed by Gary Becker (1965), provides the basis for an empirical model of social interaction. Becker’s theory emphasises the role of time in consumption and that time is a limited resource. We (Saffer and Lamiraud, 2008) employ Becker’s theory to derive a demand for social interaction. This demand function, like any other demand function, shows that the quantity of social interaction demanded depends on its own price, the price of other goods, income and taste. The price of social interaction is positively related to the individual’s valuation of their non-working time.

This price is usually approximated by the individual’s wage. However, in our study, we assume that the price of non-working time is a function of the supply and demand for this type of time. As hours of work increase, the supply of non-working time decreases. This raises the price of non-working time. Education is also an empirical proxy for the price of time. Education is assumed, to varying degrees, to increase productivity. An increase in the productivity of time reduces the time cost of social interaction.

An empirical examination

Empirically isolating the effect of hours of work on social interaction requires an exogenous change in hours of work. Our research focuses on France’s enactment of a new employment law that mandated an exogenous decline in hours of work. The 1998 legislation reduced the legal number of hours worked per week from 39 to 35. The employment law consisted of three parts: the first part covered firms with more than 20 employees, the second part covered firms with 20 or fewer employees, and the third part covered civil servants. Firms of more than 20 employees were required to conform to the law by January 2000, while small firms and civil servants were covered by January 2002. The changes in hours of work resulting from this law are exogenous to individual characteristics.

The empirical results clearly show that the employment law reduced average hours of work by 1.5 to two hours per week. These results are consistent with findings of Estevao and Sa (2006). However, the results show no evidence that these extra hours went to increased social interaction. That is, hours of work are not found to be an important determinant of social interaction. This remains true for sub-samples defined by gender, marital status, and children.

What shapes social interaction?

Human capital, however, is found to be an important determinant of social interaction. The effect of human capital, as measured by education and age, is positive for membership activities but negative for visiting relatives and friends. This is not an intuitive result and requires some explanation. One possibility is that this effect results from the productivity-enhancing aspect of education. Membership activities, like employment, are goal-oriented. Education increases productivity both at work and in membership activities. However, education has little effect on the productivity of time spent visiting. Thus, an increase in education results in greater productivity in membership activities and greater utility for the individual. To put this more intuitively, education makes membership activities more interesting and visiting less interesting. This shifts social interaction to membership activities and away from visiting.

Other factors were also found to be important determinants of social interaction. Higher income increases memberships and decreases visiting, which seems consistent with the education effect. Marriage tends to reduce all social interactions, which suggests that a spouse is a substitute for other social interactions. Children have a positive effect of membership in school and church groups, which is probably the result of complementarity between these activities and child care. Males tend to have less of all social interactions, which is a familiar result.

Finally, a comparison between France and the United States shows that the response to human capital and other variables are much the same in both nations. Since the time data show that visiting has declined while education has increased, it is possible that the true cause of the decline in visiting is rising education. Trends in social interactions, it seems, are not driven by a simple trade-off between work and play but by education and choices in consuming different types of socializing.

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  1. Jojo

    Absolutely agree. And the older you get the worst it gets.

    Yes, in the USA, the job is everything for many people. Their job is their reason for living. Also work hours are long here. 50-60 hours in the professional ranks is not uncommon (and that doesn’t include commuting time). And you don’t get overtime or extra time off in many companies either. I saw some study that said many American white collar workers use only 1/2 of their vacation time on average. We are so fearful of being away too long and having management discover that we aren’t really needed.

    One area not explored by the article is computers and technology. People walk around and work out the gym with IPOD earbuds always plugged in. There is no way to talk to them, they are consumed by whatever it is they are listening to. Surfing the web and working with a computer is a solo, isolated activity. Many use only IM & email to communicate. SOme people actually break up by email! I read a story the other day in Businessweek that said that on average , 10 Koreans a year die at their computers playing games or living alternative lives. Whew.

    Taken as a whole, technology can eventually cause you to lose the ability to communicate easily and comfortably. It’s so much easier to bury yourself in a “Second Life”.

  2. Will

    The first commenter is exactly right that technology is a critical factor. But perhaps people (especially the young) are interacting with their friends more than ever before, except now much of it is over the phone or internet. I’m not sure how that is so much worse than doing it in person.

  3. Anonymous

    I have observed that there seems to be a decline in people’s mastery of the skills that make friendship possible. Many people around here are prone to cancel commitments on short notice (sometimes without even calling), accept but rarely make invitations, decline invitations without making a followup commitment, and lack the ability to refrain from answering cellphones when they’re with other people and talking for long periods of time. They do these things as an expression of “freedom,” which I find curious and off-putting, as though asking someone to go out for a bite and a drink is like asking them to put on shackles. There’s a sense of people wanting to keep themselves open in case some other, better opportunity comes along.

  4. Anonymous

    Like a poster above said, “We are so fearful of being away too long and having management discover that we aren’t really needed.”

    That’s definitely one thing, but there’s more:

    If you go away for too long, things can pile up: emails, voicemail, bug reports, and problems of various sorts. Then you come back and management wants to give you new work on top of all that. If you spend time trying to catch up at the expense of the new stuff, you can be seen as irresponsible or slow.

    Another thing is that in some environments, taking vacation can be seen as a sign of weakness or even laziness. You can argue that you should “just quit” those type of places, but not everyone has that luxury, especially in an economic environment like this.

    Under system where many people are one job loss or sickness (due to lack of low cost health care) away from ruin, these things serve as powerful disincentives to not kowtowing to management’s every desire. That means avoiding vacations. That means staying late and working weekends. That means being on call 24/7 even if it’s not technically part of your job description. All that adds up to a lot less time for social interaction.

  5. Anonymous

    I’m honestly thinking of immigrating from the USA – especially if McCain, another folksy American fool, is elected. I don’t like us anymore. Our political judgment stinks. And the incredible political, personal, and social subservience to corporations and business is pathetic. Really we’re drones. “The business of America is business” means sacrificing all other areas of life. I think the EU offers a better life for my son.

  6. Anonymous

    I am 20-something and ill tell you from experience that it is not just professionals with demanding jobs that do not create or maintain friendships- it is most younger people in the US all together.

    I travel outside the US to Europe and Asia and thats where i meet people who i find more interesting and interested in having me as a friend. Most young Americans, i believe, just dont have good social skills and i think there must be a more deep-seated psychological reason for the lack of many meaningful friendships than ipods or demanding work.

  7. Laurent GUERBY

    “since France has strong unions” is kind of wrong. Union membership rate is very low in the private sector and has been declining for a while. In the public sector rate is higher but still low, but strikes are usually well followed. Union official representatives cannot be easily fired though.

  8. Anonymous

    There’s another subtle influence at work here which the article doesn’t address. The pace of work, for most people, is far faster than it used to be. One must interact quickly and more often. For all but the most extraverted of us, that is wearing–time away from work must be used to recharge. The appeal of further extraversion on the weekend when one has exhausted one’s social interaction energies earlier in the week at work is limited.

  9. Anonymous

    I’m amazed that no one has yet mentioned TV. How often do you walk by homes in the evening that are lit by the glow of their TVs? I would be interested to see a graph which showed the level of TV watching, the hours spent surfing the internet, and the hours worked (separated by hours worked at job and at home). Such a graph would illustrate how much time is left over for old-fashioned socializing. I do not mean to suggest disagreement with any of the observations above, however.

  10. Anonymous

    NYT: “More Americans are giving up golf”

    “The disappearance of golfers over the past several years is part of a broader decline in outdoor activities — including tennis, swimming, hiking, biking and downhill skiing — according to a number of academic and recreation industry studies.”

    So where are we spending our time?

  11. Edward Larochelle

    I’d have to say that society’s growing obsession with MySpace and Facebook is a MAJOR factor in the decline of friendships in terms of real life person to person contact. The intrigue and mystery and ease of meeting so many different new personalities/strangers online are the cause and effect of a person neglecting the quality time that they normally would have had for their friend(s) in real life. It doesn’t matter how long the friendship has been, but the person being slighted will notice how your priorities have shifted to the incessant need to be in front of a computer monitor linked to the internet opting to make friends online based on a “made up” profile. This is especially difficult for the people who have zero interest in mySpace and Facebook; they feel a sense of loss when a longtime friend is more concerned about their online friends, for the most part for flirtatious and immoral reasons, over the quality time we used to have. I speak from experience, and am currently dealing with this sense of loss. I think it is how sad how humanities obsession with cellphones, ipods, blackberrys and now internet social sites are major factors in the decline of real life relationships – my favorite talk radio host Alex Jones calls it ‘The Dumbing Down of America’. Someone please help to rescue real life person to person friendships as well as the art and intimacy of the hand written letter.

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