Posts Tagged ‘isolation’

I hate to beat a dead horse. Well, maybe this horse I do want to beat, because it never actually gives up the ghost.

Over the last few years, I have complained about a meme propagated in the popular media, abetted by a few academics, that Americans are suffering an “epidemic” of loneliness. Repeatedly since at least 2011, if not earlier, I have argued that there is no reliable evidence for any real trend in loneliness–nor in social isolation (which is not the same thing)–over the last 40-plus years. But what can this little blog do when The New York Times and The Atlantic keep flogging the loneliness horse for all the clicks it can deliver?

Two comprehensive reports on the “loneliness epidemic” have just come out. Perhaps they will finally put down that nag. Probably not.


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(Disclosure: I am tired of writing about this topic over and over again, and I suspect that regular readers of this blog are tired of reading about it over and over again – here and here and here and here and…. Yet one keeps getting provoked by media obliviousness. It’s dirty work, but someone has to…..)headbang


The trope that Americans have gotten more isolated and lonely over the last generation or so is irresistible to pundits and editors, no matter what academics say (and there are always one or two of us to provide journalists some cover). The latest, loudest declamation was by David Brooks in The New York Times of April 16, 2018, about the “epidemic of loneliness”–consistent with his recent psychologizing of what ails America. Yes, loneliness is a social problem, but no, there is no “epidemic of loneliness.” (If it’s epidemics of loneliness you want, check out the reports on farm women a century ago [1].)

Fortunately, others have responded to the latest wave. Notably, sociologist David Weakliem tracked down the one data link behind Brooks’s claim that loneliness rates doubled between the 1980s and 2000 and found that “the report of that survey didn’t say anything about changes in loneliness.” (Of course, the Times rarely publishes letters pointing out their mistakes.)

Below, I add a bit more to the fact base.


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American Ties (I)

In July, 2006, the New York Times ran a  scary story headlined, “The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier.” It was one of many news accounts that summer that reported on a dramatic finding from a study newly published in a major sociology journal. The authors had discovered that about 25 percent of Americans interviewed in a 2004 nationally representative survey had answered “no one” when asked with whom they had “discussed important matters” in the previous six months – and that percentage was way up from the 8 percent who had answered “no one” in a similar survey conducted in 1985.

Ra'ike via Creative Commons

In two decades, commentators decried, the nation had suffered a plague of isolation.The notion that Americans were becoming isolates confirmed many people’s darkest suspicion and soon became the conventional wisdom; the study was cited everywhere. However…..

I was skeptical of the 2004 survey results and explained, in detail, why I thought they were in error – three years later in the same journal. More important, a canvass of many surveys on Americans’ social ties reveals no other data showing growing isolation. Instead, surveys generally show that relatively few Americans report being isolated and that the percentage who do has changed little in decades. Modern Americans seem not particularly isolated and seem not to have gotten more so.

(Disclosure: This post is part of an occasional series drawing from a new book of mine, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970. Further details can be found there. In an earlier blog post, I discussed the decline of formal dining.)


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