Why Americans suddenly stopped hanging out

Why Americans suddenly stopped hanging out

Derek Thompson writes:

In its earliest decades, the United States was celebrated for its citizens’ extroversion. Americans weren’t just setting out to build new churches and new cities. Their associations were, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “of a thousand different types … religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.” Americans seemed adept at forming social groups: political associations, labor unions, local memberships. It was as if the continent itself had imbued its residents with a vibrant social metabolism—a verve for getting out and hanging out. “Nothing, in my view,” de Tocqueville wrote, “deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

Something’s changed in the past few decades. After the 1970s, American dynamism declined. Americans moved less from place to place. They stopped showing up at their churches and temples. In the 1990s, the sociologist Robert Putnam recognized that America’s social metabolism was slowing down. In the book Bowling Alone, he gathered reams of statistical evidence to prove that America’s penchant for starting and joining associations appeared to be in free fall. Book clubs and bowling leagues were going bust.

If Putnam felt the first raindrops of an antisocial revolution in America, the downpour is fully here, and we’re all getting washed away in the flood. From 2003 to 2022, American men reduced their average hours of face-to-face socializing by about 30 percent. For unmarried Americans, the decline was even bigger—more than 35 percent. For teenagers, it was more than 45 percent. Boys and girls ages 15 to 19 reduced their weekly social hangouts by more than three hours a week. In short, there is no statistical record of any other period in U.S. history when people have spent more time on their own.

And so what? one might reasonably ask. Aloneness is not loneliness. Not only that, one might point out, the texture of aloneness has changed. Solitude is less solitary than ever. With all the calling, texting, emailing, work chatting, DMing, and posting, we are producing unprecedented terabytes of interpersonal communication. If Americans were happy—about themselves, about their friends, about their country—then whining about parties of one would feel silly.

But for Americans in the 2020s, solitude, anxiety, and dissatisfaction seem to be rising in lockstep. [Continue reading…]

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