“Do you mind if I tell a story?” the young woman asked.
She went on to tell about volunteering at a local school, working with a child who had difficulty reading. Her story was inspiring, about a success she had had that morning, but she told it with a tear in her eye. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just didn’t have anyone to share that with.”
The current generation of college students are impressive on several measures. Overall, they are compassionate, generous and dedicated to the well-being of others. Many of them are taking a full load of credits, working 20 to 30 hours per week, and still finding ways to squeeze in time to volunteer on weekends. When you ask what they want to do with their lives, they say things like, “I want to find a way to help others,” or “I want to make the world a better place.”
They have learned to be productive. They are goal-oriented, frugal and thoughtful about using time and resources. But when you ask them about their social lives, many of them don’t know what to say. What has been squeezed out of their lives is unstructured time with friends.
Most of them will find deep social connections even harder to cultivate after they graduate.
Last May the health insurance company Cigna conducted a nationwide survey on loneliness. It found that most Americans reported feeling lonely and that young adults were considerably lonelier than older adults.
There are many reasons for this trend.
Robert Putnam’s research on civic engagement shows how participation in voluntary associations like churches and service organizations has declined every decade since the 1950s.
In “Alone Together,” Sherry Turkle writes about the ways smartphone technology “makes it easy to communicate when we wish and to disengage at will.” This allows one to make many superficial connections but few deep friendships.
Technological development aims to increase power and freedom. Automobiles, televisions, computers and smartphones all do this. The result is that most Americans have considerably more opportunities to choose where and how to live and work than they did 60 or 70 years ago. Not only that, they are not as dependent on others for most of life’s essential functions. They can shop, pay their bills, eat their meals and entertain themselves in their own homes, in their own cars, in a cubicle, in isolation.
But technological advancement is not the only cause of increased isolation. There is something else at work, something deeper, even more entrenched in our cultural identity.
Using Google’s Ngram Viewer to see how often words appear in print, one can see that the ways we talk to and about one another have been changing steadily over the past 200 years.
In 1800, the word “friend” was used more than twice as much as the word “self.” Today, the usage pattern is reversed. The word “self” appears in print about three times as much as the word “friend.”
Words like “efficiency” and “reaction,” which gained widespread usage during the Industrial Revolution, and which originally occurred almost exclusively in the context of mechanical processes, are now routinely used to describe human interactions. Today it is common to ask somebody about his or her reaction to recent events, or to praise workers for their efficiency.
By contrast, the word “conversation,” which at one time suggested a commitment to a way of life attuned to the presence of others, today is just a synonym for “talking,” and its usage has declined precipitously. We now use the word “reaction” about twice as much as “conversation.”
There is a line in Emerson’s “The American Scholar” to which my mind keeps returning: “Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden.” Is this not a vision, brief and inviting, of the kind of community to which we would belong? A thick community, a place where we are recognized and recognize others, where we have people to confide in, to share both sorrows and joys.
Yet we keep building a world that makes that vision harder to attain: neighborhoods without sidewalks, houses with backyard decks and no front porches, attached garages, big-screen televisions, email, Skype, Instagram, online education, groceries delivered to our doorsteps by a robot.
The latest Amazon commercial features delivery boxes filled with holiday gifts singing “Can You Feel It?” In the closing moments, a little box gently sings a child to sleep. It is intended to be a touching scene. It’s creepy.
If we do not like what is happening in the world, it is within our power to do something about it. We can choose community over convenience. We can practice hospitality by inviting people into our homes, by sharing our lives with others. We can put away our phones and talk to the person next to us.
We can make time for friends.