At the end of the movie It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey realizes his life isn't so bad after all because he has many friends in Bedford Falls who are ready and willing to help him.
The rest of us might not be so lucky. A survey of nearly 1,500 Americans conducted earlier this year by sociologists at Duke University and The University of Arizona found that our circle of confidants--the people with whom we feel comfortable discussing our most important issues--has decreased by nearly one-third over the past 20 years. When we want to talk, we're relying more on our closest family members: The percentage of Americans who confide only in family members has zoomed from 57 percent to 80 percent since 1985, and the number of Americans who feel they have no one to confide in has more than doubled. The researchers concluded that the greatest loss has been in our web of nonfamily connections.
Talk to experts about why this is happening, and they'll list the usual suspects. Americans move a lot and change jobs frequently, severing already shaky social ties. We're spending more time playing video games and surfing the internet, where our interactions with others are usually anonymous and often not very civil. We work long hours that leave us too tired to call old friends who live hundreds of miles away. We promise to keep in touch, but before we know it, months turn into years, and all those e-mails, invitations and holiday cards eventually stop flowing. When it comes right down to it, modern friendship takes hard work.
Not Close, But Connected
The irony is that Americans feel more socially isolated at the same time that technology is offering more and faster ways to communicate with people near and far. As a result, Americans have "fewer people they feel really close to, but there are still dozens and dozens of people they're connected to," says Howard Aldrich, a sociology professor at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who researches social relations in the workplace. "These 'weak ties' are just that: people they know and can contact but aren't necessarily people they'd invite over if they had a crisis in their life."
Jason Fried, co-founder of Chicago web applications company 37signals, thinks it's gotten harder to make and maintain his own strong personal friendships. He also feels that with so many ways to instantly communicate, our communication is becoming less valuable. "People don't even use punctuation anymore. I think it devalues [communication]," says Fried, 32. "You're basically saying, 'I don't respect this person enough to take the time to communicate with them properly.'"
Entrepreneurs talk about the sense of family in their workplaces, but how far should they go to create a family atmosphere? Aldrich believes the trend toward fewer confidants could make positive workplace relationships more important, but employers shouldn't expect employees to turn to them as confidants. "If employees don't have any friends, [it's] not the employer's job [to fix that]," he says. "Most employers aren't trained as psychotherapists."
Fried doesn't think employers should legislate friendships that could come off as contrived and interrupt employees' productivity. The seven employees at 37signals work remotely and maintain contact throughout the day using the company's own real-time messaging product called Campfire. They talk about projects, share jokes and occasionally mention something about their lives. But that's as far as it goes. "Companies don't want to know what their employees are really like," Fried says. "Companies shouldn't encourage [true openness] unless they're ready for the results. And I don't think most companies are ready."
But Susan Battley, founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting in Stony Brook, New York, thinks employers can play a big part in easing workers' sense of social isolation. "The Duke study does highlight the positive potential of community at work," she says. "If you don't have that, you're running the risk of losing your best people."
A 40- to 50-hour workweek is encouraged at First Research, a Raleigh, North Carolina, company that provides real-time market research for sales and marketing professionals. The 35-employee company also gathers workers and their families for dinner at local restaurants, and it has started an in-house volunteer program to get employees involved in the local community. "What we're trying to do is stop that social isolation that [is] created from a 70-hour workweek," says co-founder Bobby Martin, 37. "Relationships get built at companies, and that's something we advocate. But then again, we don't think [those are] the only relationships people should have."
It remains to be seen whether Americans will feel even more isolated over the next decade. But a few simple steps--from allowing flextime to letting employees leave a little early for their child's soccer game--can help people feel connected to others outside work. "That's critical social glue," Battley says.
And as George Bailey was reminded, "No man is a failure who has friends."
Chris Pentilla is a freelance journalist in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area.