Americans have never spent so much time alone. And alone time is rising sharply for every demographic—young and old, male and female, white and non-white, metro and rural. But is aloneness the same as loneliness? And can we really blame technology for it? Derek talks with economist Bryce Ward about the causes and consequences of the rise of alone time in America.
In the following excerpt, Ward reviews what data from the American Time Use Survey can tell us about how much time people spend with friends versus alone, and how that has changed over the past decade.
Derek Thompson: So as we do with a lot of podcast episodes, I want to start with the facts, the evidence, the stuff there is no controversy about, and then we’ll get into interpretation and slowly layer in slightly more controversial opinions about why this is happening and what it means. So first, let’s start with the data. You have studied the key data set here, it is the American Time Use Survey, which is run by the census. This is a government survey that basically asks Americans a bunch of questions about how they spend their day. Tell us what you found on the subject of time spent with friends, time spent with companions, and time spent alone.
Bryce Ward: Sure. The American Time Use Survey started in 2003, and between 2003 and 2013, people spent basically the same amount of time with their friends. They spend slightly less than seven hours [per week] with friends. If you expand the definition of friends to include family and neighbors and coworkers outside of work, that whole set of people—including your friends, companions—they spent about 15 hours. And then in 2014, we started slowly kind of ticking down. And by 2021, we have this data, we’re spending less than three hours [per week] with our friends, we’re spending less than 10 hours with our companions, and what are we doing with that time we used to spend with our friends and companions? We’re now spending it alone. We’ve increased the amount of time we spend alone by almost 10 hours.
Thompson: Right. It’s really remarkable. You sent me all this data and going through it, about every year since 2010, we spent less time with friends. Almost every year since 2013, we spent less time with companions, and so alone time ticks up and up and up. And this is not one of those trends that only really exists for one demographic, like it’s only women over the age of 65. This seems to be true for every age group, for every gender, for every income level, for people in metro and non-metro areas, for white and nonwhite, living with a spouse or partner, not living with a spouse or partner. Everyone seems to be spending more time alone. Do we know what people are doing with all of this extra time alone?
Ward: Mostly they’re watching TV, which probably means watching TV and looking at their phone or the internet. There’s other things. We’re exercising more alone a little bit, we’re shopping more alone, so we’re not going to the mall with our friends or whatever. But the bulk of it is, we’re taking advantage of the fact that I can stream and sit alone in a corner of my house and not have to fight with my wife about what to watch.
Thompson: And it’s important to be clear, as you are in the Washington Post piece, that this is not something that started during the pandemic. It definitely increased during the pandemic, it accelerated, but all of these things have been growing for the past decade, essentially. I really do wonder how long it’s been happening entirely. You mentioned that this data set goes back to 2003, and that not a whole lot changed between 2003 and 2013, but as you know, Robert Putnam wrote his famous book, Bowling Alone, on the decline of social capital in the 1990s, so already there were sociologists in the 1990s saying there’s a lot of people, especially men, who are spending a lot more time alone, a lot less time with the various associations and organizations that sort of yoked them together in the 20th century. Do you think it is generally a rule that over the last few decades we have generally been spending less time with friends and companions and more time alone?
Ward: In fact, Bowling Alone came out when I was a first-year graduate student and my very first paper I tried to write was using time-use data to look at time spent with friends. I didn’t find anything. Now part of the problem is that this was before the American Time Use Survey started in 2003—this is back in 2000—and we have one from 1965 and the one from the ’70s, one in the ’80s, and one in the ’90s, and they’re not exactly the same so you have to try and make them comparable. So we don’t have perfectly comparable data, but social time with friends appeared to be very resilient.
And then there’s an actual paper which looked at all those data, including the American Time Use Survey through 2010, that basically concludes that time with friends was resilient. Yeah, time in rotary clubs and bowling leagues and all the stuff Putnam [wrote about] ... That had all fallen. Time with neighbors had fallen. But our friends had remained resilient. And so this is the change, right? It’s that we go through decades of lots of social changes and we’re still spending time with our friends, but something happens about a decade ago and it’s just been accelerating, and then as you mentioned, the pandemic just really tips it over a bigger cliff that we’ll have to see how much we recover from. But there’s been a change and it’s recent when it comes to spending time with our friends or family companions.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Bryce Ward
Producer: Devon Manze