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The friendship recession
As a middle-aged adult, I have no idea how to make new friends
Whenever I remember that Blanche Devereaux of The Golden Girls was supposed to be 53 years old when the show started, my mind instantly cycles through all the episodes of the sitcom that I can remember, and I inevitably just shake my head in disbelief because I am 53 years old. How can I be the same age as Blanche Devereaux? Even though I loved tuning in every week to watch the sassy shenanigans of Rose, Blanche, Dorothy, and Sophia, they seemed so geriatric to me back when I was watching the show as a teenager. But then I figured out that the Sex and the City spinoff cast, And Just Like That, is supposedly the same age as The Golden Girls. That just kind of blew my mind because I sure as hell can’t relate to Carrie and her friends either.
But maybe I’m just jealous of all their friendships (and their closets).
The teenage years, when friendships are everything
I remember being a teenager and having a best friend who was the most important person in my life. At that age, friendships are everything. Your best friend is the bridge that carries you from childhood into adult independence, your most trusted confidant, and your safety net. You spend oceans of time with them—probably more than you’ll ever spend with a friend in your lifetime. Teen friendships seem more intense because they occur during a period of extreme emotional growth, so naturally, rejection and betrayal are going to be just as intense when everything is so hormonally charged. Oh, the drama.
Living through it again, this time from the sidelines as a parent, I can see how friendships can make or break an adolescence. It’s what we worry about at every new stage of childhood as kids move from one school to the next, and it’s top of mind as they enter college. I’ve decided that I much prefer not hearing from my kid even though I miss them, than get too many texts or calls because they’re lonely. I’m grateful that my kid won the freshman friendship lottery last year and it’s made all the difference in the world as she transitioned to college, but I also acknowledge that not every kid has the same experience.
Statistically, we have fewer friends than ever before
I keep seeing the phrase “the friendship recession.” I’ve mostly seen it in association with male friendships and how 15% of men have no close friends, a steeper decline than women. It’s gotten progressively worse over the last thirty years.
In 1990, nearly half (45 percent) of young men reported that when facing a personal problem they would reach out first to their friends. Today, only 22 percent of young men lean on their friends in tough times. Thirty-six percent say their first call is to their parents.1
It’s no coincidence that this falls within the timeline of the internet. I don’t believe that social media did any favors for friendships. If anything, it exasperates the social issues of modern life—we can hide behind the guise of being connected, but that doesn’t mean we’re connecting. It makes it easy to be flaky and noncommittal. How many times have you traded back and forth “let’s get together” messages with someone that have never gone anywhere?
Tapping a like or a heart on a friend’s social post is somehow considered an acceptable facsimile of social interaction, except you and I both know that it’s not a replacement for the real thing. Sure, social media can help make us feel connected when physical proximity isn’t possible, but tapping a like on someone’s photo is a passive act of acknowledgment and the bare minimum of social interaction. I get it; I do this too. We’re all busy. We scroll, we tap, we move on.
As intense as teenage friendships are, kids are spending less time with their friends too. However, I don’t think this generation makes a distinction between spending time together at a friend’s house vs. spending it online on Discord, Instagram, or wherever, which is interesting and frankly scary to me because where is this all heading?
The internet and social media have made it easy to spend more time alone because we can now entertain ourselves with apps, games, shows, shopping, and every other online resource available to us. Anything we’ve ever done socially can now be done online. But just as we used to channel surf by flipping through endless channels on TV, we’ve replaced it with a similar mindless activity—scrolling through our social media feeds.
In the olden days (and I mean pre-internet), we may not have been as prolific in keeping in touch with our friends, but it was more intentional and the connection more satisfying. I keep a few shoe boxes filled with old letters from various phases of my life. I have a good decade’s worth of letters from a time when mail and a phone call were still the only way to stay in touch. I treasure them. Many of them are several pages long of stories and life updates, handwritten with messy scribbles and doodles along the edges. They probably go back thirty or more years. But the letters gradually stopped coming in the early 2000s until they trickled down to none at all. Aside from the stray holiday card or postcard, nobody sends mail anymore.
Becoming a mom, the friendship windfall
I’ve been chasing after this idea of a “best friend” since high school, which was probably the last time I had one. As an adult, I’ve never had a “bestie” or a “BFF.” I’ve never gone on a girlfriends’ trip, been a bridesmaid, or any other women-bonding experiences I see in the movies or hear about from other friends. It makes me feel like I’m missing out on something wonderful (okay, maybe not the bridesmaid part). In my twenties, most of my close friends were men, and I was fine with it and even preferred it at times, but this changed when I became a mother. For the first time in my life, I developed an intense need to surround myself with women, particularly other mothers.
Before Facebook, there were internet message boards. I met my very first mom friends in early 2004 through an anonymous board called UrbanBaby. Realizing that we lived in the same neighborhood, a small group of us organized and met at a local cafe. These moms became my very first “adult” friendships, the babies were my kid’s first playdates. We met religiously once a week without fail for years—at playgrounds, at each other’s apartments, in coffee shops, and at various baby-and-me classes. When we moved into our current apartment, I formed another close friendship group with my new neighbors. Many of us were first-time homeowners and we had toddlers the same age. I remember thinking, “motherhood is the best damn thing to happen to my social life! I have soooo many friends!!”
And it’s true. You can make friends at the playground, at a kid event, or just by standing around the schoolyard waiting to pick your child up from school. Parenthood offers ample opportunities to meet new people.
Until it doesn’t. This social windfall period of parenthood has an expiration date as your kids and their social lives have less and less to do with you. I understand that sometimes we outgrow friendships and I’ve experienced this happen at different points in my life—through different jobs, deaths, Covid—but I don’t think I quite realized how true this is.
I’ve mentioned before in a previous newsletter about being disappointed at how some of my mom friendships didn’t last beyond the lifespan of our kids’ friendships. In the same way that kids retain and drop friends as they move from preschool to elementary to middle and high school, I came to realize that mom friendships can follow a similar path. It makes me question if I had put too many expectations on those relationships. Was it merely a friendship of convenience? In my worst moments of insecurity, I’ve also wondered…is it me?
The expiration date of friendships
Surveys have shown that friendships can have an expiration date and I’ve also read that the lifespan of most friendships last 7 or so years. I guess that checks out. People move in and out of our lives in constant flux and many friendships are built on common experiential phases in our lives. When a particular phase is over, some of these relationships fade as well.
I saw this happen first-hand during another prolific period of friendship in the late 2000s when I’d regularly meet up with people I’d met online. This was during that “golden era of blogging” when everyone joined Twitter and I was having real conversations via tweets every day, often with the same handful of people. Many of us were small business owners or self-employed, and Twitter and the comments sections of our blogs were like our virtual water cooler, helping us feel less isolated. I made so many virtual to real-life friends during that era, but over the years many of those friendships moved back behind screens, lost in a sea of algorithms and followers.
It’s really strange to go from talking to a friend nearly every day, to suddenly not when a friendship sort of fizzles or reaches the end of its lifespan. I think what makes it worse is that we often remain connected on social media. I can’t quite explain this dissonance, except that it makes me wonder if expired friendships would be better off if we had more distinct boundaries.
Friends in my golden girl years
In my mom’s retirement and widowhood, her social calendar is filled every week. She lives alone, but her life is rich with friendships and I wonder what my version of retirement lady life will look like.
Currently, I’m at that weird stage of transition where I no longer have any communities centered around my kids or work now that I’ve also walked away from the corporate work life. I’m spending more time alone than ever before. Surprisingly, I discovered during Covid that I’m not as introverted or an anti-social loner as I thought; I still like being around people. I look forward to embracing my inner cat-and-plant lady persona in my golden years, but I also don’t want to give up just yet. So…where does a middle-aged women make new friends these days?
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