It’s my birthday this weekend and, while I’ll certainly be celebrating with an adult beverage (or 20), I can’t help but get a little sad this time of year. As I creep toward that omni-present 40 – an ambivalent milestone I’ll hit next year – I can’t help but notice that I seem to see fewer and fewer of the people I used to consider close.
The ravages of older age take more of a toll on us all each year, with previously good friends now finding all of their time taken up by kids and family, a never-ending crush of career-related busy-ness, or just plain, simple laziness. And try as I might, I can’t just blame others for this drifting contact because I’m certainly guilty of it as well.
This year, I’m feeling the birthday doldrums a little more acutely than usual since I’ve just about finished up the manuscript on my next book, Humans 3.0, which is all about how technology is affecting human nature. I’ve spent the past two years delving into the topic, and what started out as a rather optimistic journey into the beneficence of technology has also veered into its deleterious effects.
I haven’t been able to avoid the fact that progress, technologically driven as it is, is causing people to drift further and further apart. The evidence is substantial. People are getting married less, having fewer children and therefore smaller families. They’re increasingly living away from their parents and instead shipping them off to retirement homes. Social groups like Kiwanis are shrinking, which goes hand in hand with the overall decline in advanced countries of religion.
Perhaps the most depressing statistics are those regarding how many close friends people report to having. As a 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found, the number of close confidantes a typical individual has shrank by a third between 1985 and 2006, to about two from three. The number of people who have zero close friends doubled in that time frame, to 25% of respondents.
“This change indicates something that’s not good for our society,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University. “Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action.”
There are perhaps many explanations for this trend, but it does correlate nicely with the technological explosion – especially of the Internet – over the past few decades, which invites a sobering conclusion. Technology has opened our circles dramatically and allowed us to make connections never before possible, but it sure looks like all those friends and followers we have online really don’t matter all that much, at least in terms of the most meaningful relationships.
Here’s a depressing way to test this: take your birthday off of Facebook (I did so years ago) and see how many people remember when the actual date rolls around. It probably won’t be many. Sure, it’s nice to have a whole bunch of well wishes on your wall on that special day, but do they really mean anything if they’re the result of automated notifications?
The newfound extroversion many of us have found online is having a paradoxical effect in the real world: we’ve become uber-social online, but at the same time we’re also pulling back IRL (in real life) relations. The poignant question, then, is whether technology is driving these wedges between people, or is it simply bringing us closer to our truer natures?
I’m tackling such quandaries in my book, but like I said, I can’t help but get a bit blue knowing the direction in which the trends are pointing. I’m not quite sure what the long-term answer is, but I definitely know the short-term one: bring on the beer.