New York – A society’s success is gauged not just by economics but by the strength of human relationships. By that measure the United States is slipping dangerously. Bringing Americans together again will take a vigorous effort at every level of society, and public policy will have a role to play.
On paper, the U.S. is still one of the world’s richest nations, even after accounting for inequality. But it has many problems not fully captured in income and output statistics, but which reduce quality of life for its people. One of these is a high rate of violent crime; the U.S. has more than four times as many murders per capita as the United Kingdom, and more than 25 times as many as Japan. Another is poor health; obesity, opiate drugs and other problems have combined to push U.S. life expectancy below that of its rich-world peers.
But on top of these problems, there’s growing evidence the U.S. suffers from an epidemic of social isolation. Research consistently finds close personal relationships are key factors in determining human happiness. So when we ask why Americans have grown unhappier in recent years, a breakdown of relationships is a natural place to look.
Sociologists have documented a decline in Americans’ civic participation for decades now. But recent generations may feel the sting of loneliness even more acutely. One recent survey found that 43 percent of Americans feel socially isolated, and that members of Generation Z — the cohort now in their teens and early 20s — are the loneliest of all. Other surveys find the same, with around a quarter of young people saying they have no friends.
Romantic relationships are also on the wane. A Pew survey from late 2019 found that 37 percent of single Americans aged 18 to 29 weren’t looking for either long-term or casual relationships, with most saying they either had other priorities or just weren’t interested. A plurality of those surveyed said dating has become harder over the past decade, despite the proliferation of apps designed to help with the process.
Meanwhile, plenty of evidence shows young Americans are having less sex than ever before, even in an age of permissive mores. And U.S. marriage rates are at record lows. Sociologist Rod Graham has suggested the country is facing an “intimacy apocalypse.”
The internet was supposed to reverse these trends. Social apps and mobile phones let people stay connected by video or text at all hours of the day. And yet in the information age, loneliness only seems to have gotten worse; somehow, simply facilitating human contact isn’t enough to make people build solid relationships.
The one bright spot in the data is that the pandemic hasn’t made things worse, as one might have expected. It appears the stress and physical isolation of COVID-19 have actually prodded Americans to reach out and support each other. But it’s not clear whether the situation has actually improved or simply stopped deteriorating.
A big question is whether the government can do anything to stem the epidemic of loneliness. Denser development and more public gathering places in America’s far-flung suburbs might help, but research doesn’t show much of a connection between suburbanization and social isolation. It’s just as easy to be lonely in Manhattan.
A more effective approach might be to give Americans more time off from work. The U.S. is notorious for giving its employees very little paid vacation. It’s the only advanced nation without federally mandated yearly time off, and a quarter of workers get no paid vacation time at all.
Worse, jobs in the U.S. are notorious for giving hourly workers uncertain and ever-shifting schedules, forcing them to set aside much of their off-work time just in case. More paid time off, and laws against irregular scheduling, could give Americans more time to make friends, form relationships and care for families.
Another strategy is to make families — one of the most important sources of social interaction throughout human history — more affordable. Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that only once they enjoy economic security can humans focus on pursuing love and acceptance. Lower rent, national health care and income supplementation can ease the economic pressures that keep people scrambling for money, letting them concentrate on human relationships instead.
Ultimately, it will be up to Americans themselves to put their broken society back together, come out of their caves and rediscover the joys of human relationships. But by removing the economic obstacles that leave Americans insecure, exhausted and overworked, the government can give people the space to do this.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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