Social connection: Surveys show sharp rise since 1960 in time Americans spend alone after age 40

Social connection: Surveys show sharp rise since 1960 in time Americans spend alone after age 40

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina at Our World in Data has taken a look at the results of a more granular version of a common sociological tool, the time-use survey. Such surveys ask respondents to list all the activities that they perform over a full day. What is special about the American Time Use Survey is that, unlike such surveys in other countries, respondents are asked to list everyone else who was present at an activity. The lack of detailed global data means the results that the Ortiz-Ospina highlights probably have major cultural biases built in. Without more data from outside the United States we can’t be sure, so it’s wise not to universalize the results to everybody on the planet until we actually have more information.

That doesn’t make the data we do have less valuable.

But first another caveat directly from the author:

The numbers in this chart are based on averages for a cross-section of the American society—people are only interviewed once, but we have brought together a decade of surveys, tabulating the average amount of time that survey respondents of different ages report spending with other people.

The chart he’s writing about in more readable, interactive form here.

Individuals can obviously vary far from the average, and so can entire subsets based on gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, none of which are addressed even indirectly in the Our World in Data analysis. 

Those caveats aside, the findings show an unsurprising lifelong trajectory of people having most interactions over the decades starting with parents, then moving to siblings, friends, co-workers, partners, and children. Then, around age 60, with social connections dwindling through distance, death, estrangement, and retirement, more and more time is spent solely with a partner for people who have one. 

Another factor in how much time people spend interacting with others is the percentage of older Americans living alone. That has been on the rise since 1900, with a sharp increase launching in 1960. Nearly 4 out of 10 Americans over age 89 live alone today. A more readable, interactive version of the chart below can be found by clicking here.

Aloneness doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. As Ortiz-Ospina points out, the data show that it’s not just more older Americans who are living alone. The share of people who do so has increased across nearly every age group. Though many have no option, many others choose to live by themselves. This isn’t just a U.S. trend; it’s global. Last year at this time, Ortiz-Ospina wrote: “The rise of living alone: how one-person households are becoming increasingly common around the world.”

A bit disheartening, however, is that sharp rise in the amount of time people spend alone starting right after age 40. These are not just people who live alone. The myriad reasons for any individual’s increase in the amount of time spent by themselves are obstacles to coming up with any credible determination of whether this is mostly a good trend or an awful one. But my visceral reaction is that while this may be healthy for many individuals, the overall societal impacts of the trend aren’t positive.

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