Friendship, an underrecognized bedrock of American life, has quietly been on the wane over the past 30 years. Last year, the American Perspectives Survey reported that 12 percent of Americans now say they have no close friendships, compared with 3 percent in 1990. The reasons for this are myriad. Americans are more mobile, moving often for careers, as well as working more hours. Parenting has changed dramatically, requiring more of adults’ time and resources. Covid-19, with its lockdowns and social distancing, has further fractured relationships: Nearly 50 percent of Americans reported losing touch with friends during the enduring pandemic.
For the August issue, the Highlight teamed up with Even Better to examine the state of American friendship. Through interviews, timely snapshots, service pieces, and more, Vox writers explore the following questions: How do we think about ourselves as friends, and what do we need from friendship amid the tremendous shifts in our access to social media, migration patterns, urban sprawl, and other cultural change? What happens to the culture, our health, and our support systems when friendship fades, and when does it actually serve us better to let that friendship go? Finally, if Americans are decentering friendship — in our own lives and in the larger cultural sphere — could it undermine society, too?
In our cover story, Vox staff interviewed several friends from different walks of life about their friendships and what it means to make and preserve one in the modern age. What we found was that deep friendships often take a primary role, even over romantic relationships, in the tapestry of a life. These friendships waned and waxed, recovered from hurt and traumas, but always proved singularly fulfilling.
Not all friendships, however, can be preserved. People move to new cities or start families and drift apart; some bonds are broken by differing viewpoints and ideologies, and others implode with arguments and hurt feelings. While there are plenty of guides to knowing when to end a relationship, few exist for friendships. Even Better senior reporter Allie Volpe looks at how we can assess whether it’s time to let one go.
Friendship has a powerful role in society at large, too — philosopher Hannah Arendt posited in writings that still have resonance today that it can help us push back against tyranny, writes senior culture reporter Alissa Wilkinson. It might also stave off the scourge of loneliness, if only, writes Future Perfect fellow Muizz Akhtar, we could stop designing cities to encourage driving — leaving us wanting for the sort of spontaneous encounters that can bloom into something more.
Read all this and more below.
Why friendship is different than any other relationship we have
As its role in society recedes, Vox asked six people to tell us why their friendship matters — and may just be the most meaningful relationship of their lives.
By Marin Cogan, Alex Abad-Santos, and Lauren Katz
Is this friendship over?
Platonic breakups can be just as painful as romantic ones.
By Allie Volpe
The radical political power of friendship
It can help us push back against tyranny. Philosopher Hannah Arendt’s legendary cocktail parties were proof.
By Alissa Wilkinson
How to make small talk when you hate small talk
In defense of the much-maligned conversational form.
By Rebecca Jennings
Too many Americans live in places built for cars — not for human connection
How urban planning contributed to the great undoing of modern friendship.
By Muizz Akhtar
The introvert’s guide to actually enjoying a party
It’s all about managing your social battery.
By Eliza Brooke
Men have fewer friends than ever, and it’s harming their health
The “male friendship recession” is having dire consequences.
By Aubrey Hirsch