One of the deep ironies of modern life is that we are simultaneously more connected to one another and more estranged from one another. The technologies we manufacture both soothe and exasperate our desire for relationship, leaving us all too often in a state Sherry Turkle calls being “alone together.”

How can genuine friendships be sparked, nurtured, and sustained in a cultural moment like ours?

Our question this week is: how can genuine friendships be sparked, nurtured, and sustained in a cultural moment like ours? Friendship is neither straightforward nor easy in any age, of course, much less so in age marked by profoundly individualistic values. How, in this climate, do we address what some social scientists have begun to term our “loneliness epidemic?” (Just to take one example, John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago has referred to a “silver tsunami” of loneliness among the Baby Boomers, for whom “loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity.”)

In this week’s briefing we offer three pieces that shed light on the challenge of friendship in our current moment.

The first is Julie Beck’s recent Atlantic piece, “How Friendships Change in Adulthood.” The piece begins with the ominous but plausible claim that “in the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom.” “Romantic partners, parents, children—all these come first,” Beck writes.

But the piece’s title undersells its value, for Beck does more than just diagnose a problem many of us feel. As she has it, there is a natural way in which both our capacity for making and keeping friends and the nature of those friendships develops and shifts alongside the amount of responsibility we have within primary relationships—these relationships that “come first.” “You’re stuck with your family,” Beck says, “and you’ll prioritize your spouse.” “But,” she continues, “where once you could run over to Jonny’s house at a moment’s notice and see if he could come out to play, now you have to ask Jonny if he has a couple hours to get a drink in two weeks.”

As Beck helps illustrate, it is not surprising that we have the most capacity for friendship in phases of life in which our responsibilities to others are less time-intensive—childhood and emergent adulthood on one end, and the retirement years on the other. In each of these phases of life the desire for the company of others can be paired with a relative lack of encumbrances and responsibilities.

For all its merits, Beck’s piece fails to diagnose the structural nature of the problem of friendship in our time. Her suggestion for those in the middle of what she sees as a busyness parabola is essentially of one of survival: do what you can to stay connected to friends, she seems to suggest, and wait for that (mythic?) time when things will all calm down.

The basic problem with this approach is that it focuses almost exclusively on the capacity of individuals to make, develop, and keep friends. Of course, the virtues and skills required for friendship must be developed, sustained, and culturally valued, but Beck’s analysis fails to attend to the very real structural and cultural forces that all too often hamstring the efforts of even the most capable individuals.

Our next two pieces describe two of those cultural forces: the nature of our built environments and our obsession with work.

Prompted by Beck’s piece, David Roberts takes to Vox to address the ways in which our housing decisions “make adult friendships more difficult.” Roberts focuses on what he takes to be the “interesting piece of the puzzle” Beck omitted. Against Beck’s basic degree of resignation, Roberts says:

I do not think we should just accept that when we marry and start families, we atomize, and our friendships, like our taste in music, freeze where they were in college. We shouldn't just accept a way of living that makes interactions with neighbors and friends a burden that requires special planning.

Roberts argues that the least “natural” understanding of the family is the one we intuitively take for granted. As he has it: “Each of us living in our own separate nuclear-family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it—there's nothing fated or inevitable about it.”

What is required, however, for the kind of “spontaneous encounters” with friends that Roberts desires is a fundamental re-thinking of our lived environment, one that prefers what Roberts calls “a robust walkshed” over and against the kind of isolation that presents itself as “privacy.” As Roberts indicates and this brief radio story chronicling the growth of “co-housing” in Virginia displays, some are taking the impulse behind the new urbanism to new lengths. Partially inspired by the form of monastic communities, co-housing is an attempt to engineer spaces to facilitate neighborly interactions while also preserving the domestic realm—a creative attempt to address the challenge of friendship in the modern age.

But what Roberts doesn’t address, and what seems just as important as proximity to friends, is the shifting nature of work. The period of most difficulty for friendships is not only the period of life wherein romantic relationships are solidified, children are born, and aging parents require care. It is also the period when careers are made—that is, when establishing patterns of work and rest become all-important. And so, particularly for urban professionals, living close to one’s friends is not the challenge; actually cultivating the capacity and skill to be present with them is.

In our third piece, Gianpiero Petriglieri has the courage to ask, “Is Overwork Killing You?” Petriglieri’s piece begins with a revealing anecdote about his friend “Arthur,” “a seasoned CFO” who is now newly unemployed. Petriglieri says:

He had not seen it coming and it struck hard. “I hadn’t realized how much I cared, how much work mattered to me, until then,” he explained, sharing a feeling I have heard many a manager describe. The unexpected pang of loss he felt when his work email was deactivated. He had cleared his desk defiantly, but now, his once-overflowing inbox dry, he was overwhelmed with grief.

“Work had ‘almost killed’ him long before—when it became his life.”

That Petriglieri would describe Arthur’s experience with the language of grief is revealing. That he says it “almost killed him” is even more so. “I could quit at any moment,” Arthur had told himself. But that sentiment had proved to be self-deception. As Petriglieri reports, when Arthur “still felt scarred despite new opportunities, he realized that work had ‘almost killed’ him long before—when it became his life.”

While this description of work may seem overblown and is certainly not normative for everyone, it is worth sustained consideration. In Pettriglieri’s view, many work cultures encourage employees toward what he calls a “romantic” relationship with work, in which we locate more and more of what we consider “our most authentic selves” in the products we produce and the services we provide. This approach recognizes that work, like romantic love, can be intensely satisfying. And yet, as Pettriglieri puts it:

…we should not be surprised that it threatens our families, our productivity, and our health. Romance has long been known for making us lose our minds. It is no different when work is involved.

The pressure many of us feel to do whatever it takes to establish a career that is a meaningful expression of our full selves is yet another structural impediment to friendship in our time. Since presence is the precondition for the kind of give-and-take that marks true friendships, when work becomes totalizing—demanding our total fidelity, commitment, and presence—it becomes a significant barrier to friendship. 


As always, we welcome your feedback, pushback, kudos, and ideas. You can reach Philip at plorish@newcitycommons.com.