Americans are more socially isolated today than we were barely two decades ago. The latest evidence of that comes from a topflight team of sociologists who, after comparing national surveys in 1985 and 2004, report a one-third drop in the number of people with whom the average American can discuss "important matters."
That startling report raises four questions: 1) Is it true? 2) Why has it happened? 3) Does it really matter? And 4) if so, what can we do about it?
I confess a personal stake in the first question. Six years ago in a book I wrote called Bowling Alone, I argued that the fabric of American communities has frayed badly since the mid-1960s. I traced plummeting membership in PTAs, unions and clubs of all sorts; long-term declines in blood donations, card games and charity; and drops of 40% to 60% in dinner parties, civic meetings, family suppers, picnics and, yes, league bowling.
Just as the debate about global warming began with controversial claims made by a few iconoclasts, so too were many sociologists skeptical of my findings about lonely bowlers. No complex issue is ever settled by a single study. Advancing the global warming argument has required decades of research, and it may take another decade to convince the final doubters that social connectivity in the U.S. has, in fact, disintegrated. But that latest study is an important milestone.
Ironically, the authors began their work deeply skeptical about my argument. To their credit, when the unexpected results came back, they scratched their heads, kicked the tires really hard to ensure there was no mistake and last week reported their findings in a paper aptly called "Social Isolation in America."
Why this sharp increase in social isolation? Both the new study and mine found sharp generational differences--baby boomers are more socially marooned than their parents, and the boomers' kids are lonelier still. Is it because of two-career families? Ethnic diversity? The Internet? Suburban sprawl? Everyone has a favorite culprit. Mine is TV, but the jury is still out.
Does it really matter? As a friend said, "So what if the average American now has two close friends, not three? Two is plenty." But that's exactly like saying, "If global temperatures rise from 65°F to 70°F, I wouldn't even notice." That's fine, as long as you ignore the indirect effects, like mega-hurricanes in the Gulf.
Social isolation has many well-documented side effects. Kids fail to thrive. Crime rises. Politics coarsens. Generosity shrivels. Death comes sooner (social isolation is as big a risk factor for premature death as smoking). Well-connected people live longer, happier lives, even if they have to forgo a new Lexus to spend time with friends.
So what can be done? Unlike global warming, we can solve this problem fairly easily by simply getting more involved in our communities and spending more time with family and friends. Family-friendly workplaces would help too. Reaching out to a neighbor or connecting with a long-lost pal--even having a picnic or two--could just save your life.
•Putnam is a professor at Harvard University and the author of Bowling Alone