by Ed West
Monday, 28
June 2021
Chart
07:00

How many male friends do you really have?

New research suggests a worrying decline in male friendship
by Ed West

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.

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.

Join the discussion


  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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!

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