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Our Deficit of Time

Earlier this week in the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby had a column on the recent study in the American Sociological Review on loneliness and social interaction in America. Dick Meyer has a piece today on the same issue. The introduction from the report sums up the main thesis:

Since 1985, the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled. The mean network size decreases by about a third (one confidant), from 2.94 in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. The modal respondent now reports having no confidant; the modal respondent in 1985 had three confidants. Both kin and non-kin confidants were lost in the past two decades, but the greater decrease of non-kin ties leads to more confidant networks centered on spouses and parents, with fewer contacts through voluntary associations and neighborhoods. The data may overestimate the number of social isolates, but these shrinking networks reflect an important social change in America.

Meyer offers several ideas on why this may be occurring:

The main culprits are work time and commutes. Both have increased since 1985 and both take time away from families, friends and voluntary participation. As women entered the workforce in bulk, the total number of hours family members spent working outside the home went way up. As people fled the cities, suburbs and exurbs boomed and so did commute times.

This especially affects "middle-aged, better-educated, higher-income families." As the paper points out, these are exactly the people who build neighborhoods and volunteer groups and those are the social structures that have most atrophied in the past 20 years.

The more speculative hypothesis is that perhaps new communications technologies have led to people forming wider, but weaker social ties that are less dependent on geography. E-mail and cheap phone calling have made it easier to stay in frequent, sometimes constant touch with lots of people, no matter where they are.....

Certainly, it's hard to escape complaints about the busy-ness and time-stress of life these days; it's an obvious, bad problem. For most people I know, it is exacerbated by the technology that is meant to make it easier for us to communicate and stay connected.

Instead of feeling in touch, many feel on a leash. Portable, gadget driven communication doesn't count as soul-feeding bonding for many people I know, but is rather a cruel mockery. Explaining social isolation will be controversial, but not as difficult as repairing it.

In my mind there is no question that the explosion of cable/satellite TV and the Internet are major contributing forces, along with a myriad of other factors that contribute to these results. But in the end what they all lead to is a deficit of time in the day.

What most of us lack in this world today is time. And building real friendships and relationships is something that takes time. And time is something we haven't figured out how to make more of.