Americans Are Becoming Less Social

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Over the last 40 years, Americans have become less social. A new report [PDF] in the City Observatory by economist Joe Cortright examines our social lives and social capital, focusing on how socioeconomics, technology, and segregation—both voluntary and involuntary—have affected our relationships with those around us.

Cortright says people have become increasingly disconnected as they've shifted away from community resources—like public pools, schools, and mass transportation—towards private services such as membership-based gyms, charter schools, and cars.

“Our city governments, schools, and communities are more fragmented and less inclusive than in days gone by,” writes Cortright. “In many cases—in leisure, entertainment, and schooling—we’ve enabled people to secede from the commons and get a different level and quality of service.”

Neighborhoods have also become stratified by economic class and belief systems, especially political leanings. As a result, residents lose the opportunity to form a diverse network of friends and acquaintances.

Even worse, we're not talking to the neighbors we do have. Data from the General Social Survey shows that people are less likely to socialize with their neighbors than they were in the 1970s, when less than a fourth of the survey respondents “reported no interaction with their neighbors.” Today one-third of us ignore the people next door.

We trust each other less as well, which Cortright argues is both a cause and effect of the disintegration of the public realm. People have fewer interactions with other members of their community, and that unfamiliarity breeds distrust. And because we're distrustful, we're less willing to invest in the public realm. It's a vicious cycle.

Cortright also says our ability to tune each other out via technology contributes to the problem. While gathering around the radio to listen to a live event hasn't been common for a long time, we rarely even gather around the TV anymore, preferring to stream our media on computers and phones, watching our shows on screens big enough for just one or two viewers.

And then there are our ever-present headphones, which signify a desire to be alone. "With our separate, personal audioscapes and an increasingly fragmented media world, it may be more difficult today to have shared, collective experiences that provide a common meaning (or narrative) and strengthen our sense of attachment to ‘place’ and each other,” he writes.

Cortright seems to believe that even with alternatives to in-person interactions like social media, which draws hundreds of millions of people every day, our connectedness to one another will continue to decline unless we make an active effort to do something about it—face to face, neighbor to neighbor, community by community.

 [h/t Pacific Standard]