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Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Future of the Middle Class Initiative and co-directs the Center on Children and Families. His[…]

Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, discusses the importance of friendships and the potential “friendship recession.” He notes that loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, but measuring and quantifying friendships is difficult. According to Reeves, an ideal number of close friends is around three or four.

But alarmingly, 15% of young men today report having no close friends, compared to 3% in the 1990s. The COVID pandemic has further tested friendship networks, with women being the most affected due to their friendships’ reliance on physical contact. Other factors likely have contributed to the decline in friendships in the 21st-century U.S., including geographical mobility, parenting demands, workism, and relationship breakdowns.

Reeves emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and nurturing friendships as they don’t form spontaneously. Admitting the desire for friends requires vulnerability and openness, which may be difficult for some individuals.

RICHARD REEVES: There are some studies that suggest, for example, that being without a close friend, being lonely, is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's quite hard to measure friendships. What's the quality of that friendship? What's the quantity? When people say they have a certain number of friends, what does that mean? Does it mean how many friends they have on Facebook? It is difficult to get at this quantitatively, and also people I think are a bit reluctant to admit sometimes to not having friends. Loneliness is in some ways quite a stigmatized condition, and so actually getting people to admit to loneliness is something that social scientists really struggle with. I think a big question now is whether we are facing a 'friendship recession.' That's the term that Daniel Cox, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has used to describe this rise in a number of people who lack a certain number of close friends, who have fewer people to turn to in times of crisis. You need a shoulder to cry on, or at least someone to have a conversation with. That's less and less likely to be a friend now. And as society changes in all kinds of ways, technologically, economically, then I think it's important that we pay attention to what is very often an underappreciated human relationship- which is the friendship. 

Friendships come in all shapes and sizes, and are also formed in very different ways and in very different places. One way we form friends is just by being at the same school as somebody, by growing up in the same place. Another way is through the situations you find yourself in, through work. They're also friends that you form through activities that are chosen, so through a volunteer activity or a sport, athletics. The fourth is online friendships. Those are friendships that are formed through a screen or over the internet in one kind or another, without necessarily ever physically meeting that person. 

Across human history, there's always been a tribal size, I think to friendship groups, which is somewhere in the teens, say between 12 and 15 perhaps is a reasonable number to think about. And then there are close friends. Some people of course have no close friends, but most people have at least a close friend. And most people would say that the ideal number of close friends to have is somewhere around the three or four number. 

Friendship was something that the ancient philosophers used to take very seriously. If you go back to Aristotle, for example, in some ways seen as the ideal relationship, and one of the reasons why friendship is, I think so important and so idealized is 'cause it's a relationship of genuine and radical equality, and one in which you're not in the friendship in order to get something out of it for yourself. There's no sense of dependency. There's no sense of exchange. It's not a transactional relationship in any way. And in most other occasions, relationships do contain some kind of transaction, some kind of "what's in this for me?" But the definition of a friendship is a relationship where there is nothing in it for you other than the relationship. 

We've seen a decline in lots of traditional institutions including the family, people marrying later if they do marry, obviously, in areas like religion, in some cases the the labor market. And so, what that means is there's more of a need for people to have social relationships, connections outside of those institutions. That's where friends are hugely important. But during the same period, we've seen a real decline in the number of people who say that they have a number of close friends. There are a number of factors that could be getting in the way of forming friendships, particularly in 21st-century U.S. Number one is geographical mobility. People moving away from their homes, moving to big cities or career opportunities which necessarily stretches their friendship network. Parents are spending quite a bit more time on parenting, on looking after their kids, which squeezes out the time that they might have had for friendships before. There's also a lot of emphasis on work and careers, what some scholars call 'workism,' which is a sense that your identity is so what wrapped up in your work that you don't have as much energy and time left over for friends. And then lastly, I'd point to the breakdown of relationships as marriages break up or couples separate that can be really fracturing of friendship groups that have been formed as a couple. Once they break up the friendship groups very often get shattered as well. 

There are a few downsides to being without friends. One is lack of access to opportunities. It turns out that many people get a lot of jobs and opportunities and chances to go and do things through their friends- so friends do act as a communications information channel. But there are some quite profound effects on health, too: Mental health, and even physical health. It's not exactly clear what the causal relationships are, what's going on, but it is clear that having friends is protective of your health in various ways. And so it's not just that being without friends can make you isolated in a sort of economic or a social sense, but it can also make you sad. And being sad it turns out is also bad in terms of your physical as well as emotional health. 

Today, 15% of young men say that they don't have a close friend. That was just 3% back in the 1990s. And so, we're seeing a fivefold increase in the number of men have no close friends. Back in 1990, almost half of young men, 45% said that if they had to turn to someone in a time of trouble, it would be to a close friend. But now that's dropped to about 22%. And in fact, there are more men, about 36% who say that they would go to their parents. And so that's a quite a radical transformation in the social networks that we've seen, particularly of young men. 

The pandemic has been a sort of stress test for our friendship networks. Interestingly there, we see that it's women who've been most affected: with more than half of women saying they've lost touch with at least some of their friends. I think that's because female friendships are more based on physical relationships on face-to-face time, whereas male friendships tend to be more mediated perhaps through activities or technology. We don't know for sure, but that gender gap is suggestive of the fact that women's friendships are more in need of more regular physical contact than male friendships are, which is maybe why women's friendships are born the brunt of the impact of COVID on those friendship networks. 

There's obviously a dystopian version of how these trends could continue, which is a world of essentially atomized individuals without friends, isolated, sad, lonely, perhaps in ill health. I think that's why we have to pay real attention to these trends, and to recognize that friendship is incredibly important for human flourishing, and that people want to make friends. We are wired to want to be social creatures and to be friends- but that it might be harder for us to do so in certain circumstances. Circumstances where we're under too much pressure, where we're too segregated, where the opportunities to cultivate friendship are not there. A key lesson that we learn is that friendships don't form themselves. Friendship is not a flower that just blooms all on its own. It's more like a woodworking project that you have to carve out and continue to work on. 

One of the necessary steps to making a friend is to admitting that you want to make a friend, to being open to that. That requires a certain vulnerability. It requires you, in some ways, to reveal a need, a desire. And I think as we get older, there's sometimes a sense of shame that comes along with not having enough friends and actually saying, "I need a friend," is maybe one of the hardest sentences that any human being can utter.