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Hanging Out is Counter-Conduct

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 / Unsplash
Hanging Out is a Rebuke to the Left Hemisphere
America has a crisis: Young people are wasting enough time with one another. The result? Depression, suicide, and general malaise are up. Happiness is down. I’ve long chided my kids, especially my daughters, for making “hanging out” a priority. In my left-hemispheric world, hanging out serves no purpose so it’s
Sartre said hell is other people. Perhaps. But the alternative is worse.

In its earliest decades, the United States was celebrated for its citizens’ extroversion. Americans weren’t just setting out to build new churches and new cities. Their associations were, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “of a thousand different types … religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.” Americans seemed adept at forming social groups: political associations, labor unions, local memberships. It was as if the continent itself had imbued its residents with a vibrant social metabolism—a verve for getting out and hanging out. “Nothing, in my view,” de Tocqueville wrote, “deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

Something’s changed in the past few decades. After the 1970s, American dynamism declined. Americans moved less from place to place. They stopped showing up at their churches and temples. In the 1990s, the sociologist Robert Putnam recognized that America’s social metabolism was slowing down. In the book Bowling Alone, he gathered reams of statistical evidence to prove that America’s penchant for starting and joining associations appeared to be in free fall. Book clubs and bowling leagues were going bust.

If Putnam felt the first raindrops of an antisocial revolution in America, the downpour is fully here, and we’re all getting washed away in the flood. From 2003 to 2022, American men reduced their average hours of face-to-face socializing by about 30 percent. For unmarried Americans, the decline was even bigger—more than 35 percent. For teenagers, it was more than 45 percent. Boys and girls ages 15 to 19 reduced their weekly social hangouts by more than three hours a week. In short, there is no statistical record of any other period in U.S. history when people have spent more time on their own.

And so what? one might reasonably ask. Aloneness is not loneliness. Not only that, one might point out, the texture of aloneness has changed. Solitude is less solitary than ever. With all the calling, texting, emailing, work chatting, DMing, and posting, we are producing unprecedented terabytes of interpersonal communication. If Americans were happy—about themselves, about their friends, about their country—then whining about parties of one would feel silly.

But for Americans in the 2020s, solitude, anxiety, and dissatisfaction seem to be rising in lockstep. Surveys show that Americans, and especially young Americans, have never been more anxious about their own lives or more depressed about the future of the country. Teenage depression and hopelessness are setting new annual records every year. The share of young people who say they have a close friend has plummeted. Americans have been so depressed about the state of the nation for so many consecutive years that by 2023, NBC pollsters said, “We have never before seen this level of sustained pessimism in the 30-year-plus history of the poll.”

I don’t think hanging out more will solve every problem. But I do think every social crisis in the U.S. could be helped somewhat if people spent a little more time with other people and a little less time gazing into digital content that’s designed to make us anxious and despondent about the world. This young century, Americans have collectively submitted to a national experiment to deprive ourselves of camaraderie in the world of flesh and steel, choosing instead to grow (and grow and grow) the time we spend by ourselves, gazing into screens, wherein actors and influencers often engage in the very acts of physical proximity that we deny ourselves. It’s been a weird experiment. And the results haven’t been pretty.

To get a crystal-clear picture of how hanging out has dissipated in America, I spent the past week spelunking inside the American Time Use Survey, an annual government poll of how people in the U.S. spend their days. Economists at ATUS carefully track time spent socializing—meaning face-to-face interaction—for more than a dozen demographics.

Broadly, real-world socializing has declined for both men and women, for all ages, for all ethnicities, and for all levels of income and education. Although COVID-19 clearly increased time alone, these trends predate the pandemic. The steepest declines have been among young people, poor people, and Black Americans. Women and 20-somethings enjoy the most social time in a given week, and low-income, middle-aged, unmarried men seem to get together the least. For most groups, the decline was staggered before accelerating after 2015. Beyond in-person hanging, several other forms of socialization have declined by about a third in the past 20 years, including the share of Americans who volunteer and the share of Americans who attend religious services over the weekend.

One of the more curious trends to jump out of the data is that many Americans have traded people for pets in our social time. The average time that Americans spend with their pets has roughly doubled in the past 20 years—both because more people have adopted pets and because they spend more time with them. In 2003, the typical female pet owner spent much more time socializing with humans than playing with her cat or dog. By 2022, this flipped, and the average woman with a pet now spends more time “actively engaged” with her pet than she spends hanging out face-to-face with fellow humans on any given day.

The hang-out depression is particularly bad for teenagers. According to the ATUS, teens and young adults saw by far the largest dip in socializing, especially since 2010. In fact, it is genuinely difficult to find any category of play that isn’t experiencing some kind of Mayday! Mayday! descent among this group. Teens are dating lessplaying fewer youth sports, spending less time with their friends, and making fewer friends to begin with. In the late 1970s, more than half of 12th graders got together with their buddies almost every day. By 2017, only 28 percent did. “There’s very clearly been a striking decline in in-person socializing among teens and young adults, whether it’s going to parties, driving around in cars, going to the mall, or just about anything that has to do with getting together in person,” says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

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Gift Article: Why Americans Suddenly Stopped Hanging Out
Too much aloneness is creating a crisis of social fitness.