Is America suffering a ‘social recession’? | Anton Cebalo

Ever since a notorious chart showing that fewer people are having sex than ever before first made the rounds, there’s been increased interest in the state of America’s social health. Polling has demonstrated a marked decline in all spheres of social life, including close friendships, intimate relationships, trust, labor participation and community involvement. The continuing shift has been called the “friendship recession” or the “social recession” – and, although it will take years before this is clearly established, it was almost certainly worsened by the pandemic.

The decline comes alongside a documented rise in mental illness, diseases of despair and poor health more generally. In August 2022, the CDC announced that US life expectancy had fallen to where it was in 1996. Contrast this to western Europe, where life expectancy has largely rebounded to pre-pandemic numbers. Even before the pandemic, the years 2015-2017 saw the longest sustained decline in US life expectancy since 1915-18, when the US was grappling with the 1918 flu and the first world war.

The topic has directly or indirectly produced a whole genre of commentary from many different perspectives. Many of them touch on the fact that the internet is not being built with pro-social ends in mind. Increasingly monopolized across a few key entities, online life and its data have become the most sought-after commodity. The everyday person’s attention has thus become the scarcest resource to be extracted. Other perspectives, often on the left, stress economic precarity and the decline of public spaces as causes of our rising anomie.

Some of these same criticisms have been adopted by the new right, who additionally indict the culture at large for undermining traditions of sociality, be it gender norms or the family. Believing it disproportionately affects men, this position has produced many lifestylist spinoffs: Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), trad-life nostalgia, inceldom, masculinist groups and hustle culture with a focus on “beating the rat race”. All of these subcultures are symptoms of the social recession in some way, for better or worse.

Pundits, politicians, bureaucrats and the like have generally fixated on the social recession’s potential to incubate political extremism. Entire institutes have been set up to study, monitor and surveil the internet’s radicalizing tendencies buoyed by anti-social loneliness. The new buzzword often used in this sphere is “stochastic terrorism” – meaning acts of violence indirectly motivated by messages of hate spread through mass communication – and much of this discussion has focused on the need to contain some unknown, dangerous element taking hold of the dispirited online. The goal here is not to solve a pernicious problem, but instead to pacify its most flagrant outbursts.

We have no clear, comparative basis on which to judge what will emerge from the growing number of people who feel lost, lonely or invisible. The closest comparison comes from the early 20th century when, for the first time, millions of provincial people moved to major cities to pursue their dreams. Many uprooted themselves only to be poor and unfulfilled. In The Sleepwalkers (1930), the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch rooted his panorama of the first world war in “the loneliness of I”. Likewise, nobody cares for Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), and poor Samsa is compelled to go to work despite not even recognizing himself any longer. In WH Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety (1948), he described the alienated product of mass industrial society: “miserable wicked me / how interesting I am”.

people at christmas church service
Church attendance has plummeted since 1999. Photograph: Bob Daemmrich/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

While data and polling have their limits, they are a useful starting point for concretely discussing the social recession and whether it’s here to stay.

The political scientist Robert D Putnam published his study Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community in 2000 to much praise for its breadth of research. The book documents the decline of sociability in the US since the 1950s by tracing the dwindling number of Americans frequenting religious and civic organizations, volunteer work, sports clubs, hobbyist groups and so on.

The book was one of the first to quantitatively determine that, yes, the traditional American community was on the decline. It remains a staple in political science courses. Yet many of the metrics used in the study are today a bit dated. Even the title does not evoke the relevance it once did, since not even bowling has been spared the decline of social activities. Moreover, in the year 2000, it was far easier to see the trend as “fixable” because it was not overwhelmingly determined by any one factor.

Putnam’s work is an assessment of social life before the complete mass adoption of the internet. That world is clearly never coming back. If we take one metric commonly cited in the book, church membership, the decline Putnam describes is exceptionally mild compared to what came after. In 1999, according to Gallup, 70% of Americans reported belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque; by 2020 – two decades after Putnam’s book – it was already down to 47%.

It’s also worth considering a simple metric: screen time, a proxy for time spent not doing community activities in person. Rather than bowling alone, Americans are instead browsing alone – over seven hours daily, on average, with the number rising every year. As of 2021, 31% of Americans claimed to be online “almost constantly”.

If we are browsing alone rather than bowling alone, the real metric to look at is friendships themselves. The past few decades have recorded a steep decline in people’s reported number of friends. The number of Americans who claim to have “no close friends at all” across all age groups now stands at around 12%, according to the Survey Center on American Life. By comparison, only 2% of Americans said they had no close friends in 2003, according to Gallup. Friendlessness is more common for men, but it is nonetheless affecting everyone.

Although studies of the subject tend to be general estimates of the entire population, it looks worse when we focus on generations who grew up with the internet. When polling exclusively American millennials, a pre-pandemic 2019 YouGov poll found that 22% have “zero friends” and 30% “no best friends”. For those born between 1997 and 2012 (Generation Z), there has been no widespread, credible study done yet on this question – but if you’re adjacent to internet spaces, you already intuitively grasp that these same online catalysts are deepening for the next generation.

Another concerning trend is so-called “late adulthood”, which has been particularly common among those born from the 1990s onward. The term refers to a delaying of traditional milestones of adulthood such as getting a driver’s license, moving out, dating, starting work and so on.

The trend became obvious starting in the 2010s. In 2019, it was compiled in a comprehensive study titled The Decline in Adult Activities Among US Adolescents, 1976-2016. The same paper found a similar decline in how often high schoolers went out without their parents. Some of this is not necessarily “bad”, and it’s more symptomatic than anything else. For example, delayed adulthood is linked to less of a desire to engage in risky behavior like delinquency or excess drinking.

While risk avoidance can be positive, however, it also tracks the decline in sociability and is therefore bundled with other personal costs. Mental health among people native to the internet continues to worsen amid an increase in so-called diseases of despair – substance abuse, suicidal ideation, etc – in the US more generally. These were the leading causes of the drop in life expectancy before the pandemic.

girl on phone
The situation looks worse when we focus exclusively on generations who grew up with the internet. Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

Then there is the rapid increase in people who have had no sexual relations since they turned 18, in a time of unprecedented sex positivity no less. The writer Katherine Dee has flipped this common understanding, arguing that we’re seeing a wave of disembodied “sexual negativity” rather than free love. The results of that inversion are not unexpected. Although popular culture often paints a picture of hedonistic young people awash in app-aided sex and dating, the reality is that a disembodied and heavily online life produces less physical intimacy.

Missing from all of this is the building block of society: trust. The past 50 years have seen America’s transformation from a high-trust to a low-trust society, accompanied by a collapse of authority across all levels: social, political and institutional. In 2022, trust dropped to a new average low – a development that has been the trend since the 1970s.

Americans do perceive that trust has diminished among the general population, according to Pew Research. The vast majority are “worried about the declining level of trust in each other”. Many also feel that they no longer recognize their own country, although that recording is probably caught up somewhat in political partisanship. The erosion of trust in the US began decades ago, after Watergate and the “crisis of confidence” during the 1970s, but it binds our current time to a more familiar past cynicism. Skepticism toward the state has evolved into more generalized distrust of society at large, constantly amplified by the internet.

From all this data we can sketch a new individual, a growing minority in our society: people who are plugged in, dispirited and often feel invisible. Carl Jung wrote that personal meaning comes “when people feel they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama”. In our increasingly frayed sociality, what often enters instead is nostalgia, exaggerated hatred and the desire to be saved.

Right now, the dispirited are only beginning to agitate the political establishment, which is led mostly by people of an older generation socialized in a different way. The current US government has been called a gerontocracy and the “oldest government in [US] history”. As of 2022, over 23% of members of Congress are over 70 years old, and the median age is 61.5. American political power has so far only sporadically felt the effects of the new individual at the ballot box, while at the same time chastising the public for it. The politics of the social recession have therefore only really just started.

In his book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2013), the media and political theorist Martin Gurri argues that the digital public lacks a coherent program and is motivated by negation and a desire to tear down idols and authority. We cannot expect the new individual to simply be contained to just his or her own alienation, pacified and alone. That alienation will inform beliefs on how society should be organized and will be the substance of some future worldview, whatever it may be.

This process cannot be easily reverted. Nor can we expect political management from above to contain these asocial sentiments. The healthier alternative involves rethinking internet infrastructure to pro-social ends, with platforms owned by the people using them and designed with community prerogatives in mind.

I’m not going to pretend to know what that will look like, since much of it has to happen organically. While the trends described here may be a “new normal” in the sense that they cannot be reversed, I still think another, more positive kind of online community is imaginable. The internet does not need to be joined at the hip to a permanent social recession.

  • Anton Cebalo is a writer and historian. He is the author of the Substack newsletter Novum, where a version of this piece was first published