How many male friends do you really have?
New research suggests a worrying decline in male friendship
How many good friends do you have? That is, actual real close pals, the sort you’d ring up to bail you out of a Bangkok jail or open up to about a personal crisis? According to a recent study, about one in seven American men have none whatsoever, a five-fold rise in just 30 years.
Men have experienced a much steeper decline in the number of close friends they have. It's dramatic. pic.twitter.com/dGiDHJtYDB
— Daniel Cox (@dcoxpolls) June 25, 2021
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It is a startling number, up there with those stats about the number of Americans who are celibate or addicted to opiates.
Like almost all of these trends, I suspect the same here is happening in Britain, but in a less extreme form; here, loneliness is far more of a problem for young people than the old, which seems counter-intuitive, and for most I imagine the last year and a half has not improved things.
And if people are lonely in their 20s, what happens when they enter the mid-life happiness U-curve around their mid-30s, when a lot of friends drift away and people get married and have kids?
This is what I find frustrating about the constant clatter of mental health campaigners to get men to open up and talk about themselves. For many men the problem isn’t talking about their feelings, the problem is not having anyone to talk to about anything. Their mental health would be hugely improved by talking about football, cricket, birdwatching, the films of Martin Scorsese or World of Warcraft.
In Ireland, the enforcement of drink-driving laws a few years back led to a rise in rural suicides because people were unable to get to the pub and talk to friends, and Irish farmers aren’t noted for Meghan Markle-style emoting and incessant self-reflection — they just had no friends to talk to.
I’m not sure this is something that can be particularly changed by politics; maybe it’s just part of the inevitable forces of liberalisation, economic and sexual. Helen Andrews argues that anti-discrimination laws aimed at men’s organisations played a part in destroying men’s organisations, and there is probably some truth in that.
Certainly, I believe that organisations and societies where men or women wish to get together should not be treated with suspicion and cynicism, but as a healthy social necessity. A great deal of male friendship was once linked to clubs that excluded women either officially or unofficially — various sports organisations, working men’s clubs or groups like the Rotary Club, which was founded in 1905 and didn’t allow women to join until 1989.
The US Army was hugely influential in post-war America’s historically high levels of social capital, but also strong (and for many, suffocating) sexual conservatism. So many strong friendships had been formed in the war against Nazism that American men took with them their entire lives; picture the closing scene of Band of Brothers where the veterans of Easy Company are playing Baseball.
Many of these organisations would be, if not actually illegal, then hugely stigmatised, but I suspect that in most cases the alternative to male-only groups isn’t the creation of perfectly-formed Homo Progressivus but no groups at all, apart from the often toxic, lonely, dysfunctional and extreme world of online.
“… or open up to about a personal crisis?”
I think the proliferation of therapy and therapists is playing some role here. While going through some very difficult times, I had a friend tell me that maybe I should ‘talk to someone’ about things. I remember telling him, “Well, I’m talking to you.” The conversation ended shortly thereafter. I think this push to have everyone turning to ‘professionals’ is damaging to relationships between couples. I think intimacy comes from sharing your crises with your partner, not by turning to a therapist. Yes – there may be a role for a therapist or other type of professional. But, it’s fascinating to see so many people going on about their realtionship with their therapist. It’s like a badge of honor. Maybe most concerning, I think it will be damaging to children who need to learn that they may actually be able to sort things out on their own. I’m surprised at how quickly parents turn to ‘professionals’ at the first sign of trouble. I have witnessed this first hand and am baffled by it.
I do not know anyone who has gone to therapy, sure, anger management maybe, court ordered, but not therapy as such.
But reading this post did make me think – I have always been in a male kind of work, I really have not worked much around woman, and the men I know – well that is also true of them.
:“but I suspect that in most cases the alternative to male-only groups” I guess this made me reflect on what it must be to have an office job – or some job were men and women work together, it would be really weird, I cannot imagine it. I always made my living at hard, physical, work, mostly construction, but other things too, that were almost all men. I guess the men I always spent my working time with are the sort that now days would be thought as Cavemen – but it is just normal to us, some jobs still are divided by sex. It is odd to think but I suppose my entire life I have been traditionally very masculine/male and I cannot imagine myself as anything else – sometimes I forget how much the world has moved on past me and what an anachronism I am becoming….
It’s ultimately a consequence of tech advance: male biological function is being usurped as male advantages of size, strength and aggression become progressively more redundant in modern complex roles that require none of those things, and female biological social traits start gaining the upper hand.
And a tech dominated society will starve not just males but the whole of humanity of the socialisation it requires, likely causing an epidemic of isolation and alienation in individuals.
But the need for human social interaction is a biological condition, built into human genetics through the long slog of evolution.
So a problem created by tech, can also be solved by tech. The solution, clearly, is to use the fast emerging gene-editing technologies like Crispr and Prime to edit out the bits of our genetic makeup that cause unwelcome depressive mental reactions to social deprivation. And more root-and-branch, also perhaps silence those genes that drive the need for social interaction in the first place.
Solipsist Nation, here we come!
Excellent Post, as usual, Prashant, but I thought Unherd filled the roll of friend.
I have a few friends, but it is a thing we do which has been the basis of our good friendship. I fish a lot, I even do some small commercial fishing, as do some I know, and there is a community there, we talk a good amount wile fishing, not many women fishermen though – but you would be surprised at the way a few women are as into fishing as men.
The problem is my fishing friends are not an educated bunch at all. We spend a lot of time together on the water, we know each other, we phone each other, and tell of our day on the water. But we do not talk about intellectual, just practical and personal. When I work with someone at my work as a Tradesman the same thing happens, we talk practical matters and tell incidents of our past. I have a Carpenter who mostly works for me, and we know almost nothing of each other really, (he tells me stories of jail, and his son in prison, and his rough life, and his hundred bar fights), although often together for months, every day we have very little to talk of other than the sort of “I once did” stories, and of work.
I have friends, but not ones I can discuss impractical things with – and so that is your job here……..to fill that gap
‘Solipsist Nation, here we come!’
A better solution would simply be to go to Church
I am in fact the member a Church – I belong to The Church Of The God Who Makes No Difference.
apart from the often toxic, lonely, dysfunctional and extreme world of online.
Good article in general but I think this almost ruins it. Yes of course there are lots of awful nonsense online, but that’s because there is everything online. Online didn’t cause it, just made it more accessible. And it ignores all the good also.
Stigmatising online interactions in this way completely undermines a lot of good points the article makes. At this moment above all, playing games or interacting with friends (both pre-existing ones, and new ones met online) is the highlight of many peoples’ day or week.
Stigmatising it further won’t help anyone
Every on-line community I have joined eventually banns me, and this is true. When I log onto Unherd I am always surprised to find I am still here.
It’s not that men don’t want to talk to each other, it’s that they don’t have anything to talk about. Who wants to drone on about things or listen to some other man doing so? I can’t think of anything worse. If you want us to talk to each other you need either: 1. alcohol or 2. a joint physical activity or 3. a joint project to do. Once that is in place, banter becomes inevitable. From there friendships are formed.
I agree with the author about men-only clubs. I think opening up the scouts to girls was a big mistake. Lads are generally at school with girls – who they spend a lot of time trying to impress – and I think welcome some time away from them. I bet it is the same for girls and the Guides.
The last year has been hellish. Women have been meeting friends for coffee, visiting within their bubbles when cafes are closed, chatting on Zoom and WhatsApp about their lives. Men just want to do stuff and maybe talk about actual stuff, external stuff, anything but the churning inside our head. And we have been denied that.
Couldn’t those Irish farmers just have got a phone installed?
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