A nation of isolation

July 04, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Just when you thought we had more than enough reasons to feel bad about ourselves, along comes a major, multiyear sociological survey to tell us that we Americans don't have enough friends.

I'm not just talking about acquaintances. I mean a real confidant - a pal, a running buddy, a girlfriend, a wingman, etc.

Almost 1 in 4 Americans has no one to confide in, according to a widely reported study published June 23 in the American Sociological Review by researchers at Duke University and the University of Arizona.

The study is based on face-to-face interviews of 1,467 people conducted in 2004, compared with a similar number of interviews conducted in 1985. Among those who say they do have close friends, the study says the average number of confidants has dropped since 1984 from three to two.

Americans' social contacts are focusing less on neighbors and more "on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family," said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke sociology professor and the survey's lead author.

Some of us could see this coming as the past decade's Internet tsunami rolled in. 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.

Yet long before we logged in to the new Web Age, the old networks of American communities were fraying. Since at least the mid-1960s, Harvard University professor Robert Putnam argued in his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, membership has plummeted in PTAs, unions, clubs and, in accordance with his title, bowling leagues.

Mr. Putnam also reported long-term declines in civic participation, including charity and blood donations, and drops as sharp as 60 percent in dinner parties, civic meetings, family suppers and picnics.

Before that, there were classics such as David Riesman's 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, which described the alienating conformity of the new postwar workplace as craftsmen were replaced by organization men. He also provided a generation of college students with such thought-provoking pickup lines as, "Are you inner-directed or other-directed?"

But it is easier to come up with possible reasons for increasing social detachment than to figure out how much of a problem it is. We know that social fragmentation and indifference to one another can lead to rising crime, failing kids and nastier polarized politics. They may also pose health threats.

"Well-connected people live longer, happier lives, even if they have to forgo a new Lexus to spend time with friends," writes Mr. Putnam, responding in a recent Time magazine essay to the Duke study,

Yet this new social detachment appears to have come as a result of our hardwired American pursuit of what we want. We Americans are a restless people who take pride in our autonomy and self-reliance.

Rugged individualism, rampant consumerism and restless pursuit of upward mobility and self-reinvention are enduring themes of America's cultural life. But so are themes of home, community and shared security.

Our cultural longings flip-flop between individualism and attachment, between Donald Trump and Martha Stewart's restless hustle and Lake Wobegon's mythical stability, "where the women are strong, the men are good-looking and all of the children are above average."

Leave it to Americans to come up with the mega-church, where we can stroll in and decide precisely how much we want to be involved in a new community or stay semi-anonymous in the crowd, just you and me, God.

We want it all. Can we have it? Politicians and pitchmen for various products would have us think so. A balanced life calls upon us to separate the hype from reality and make good choices as we figure out who our true friends are.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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