The straightforward headlines is this: Americans are spending *significantly* more time alone — and were doing so before the pandemic.
Between 2003 and 2019, the aggregate time-spent-alone, according to the American Time Use survey, went from 43.5% to 48.7% — again, that’s pre-pandemic. Then, between 2019 to 2021, the percentage of time spent alone went up to 50.5%. (At the same time, time spent with people outside of one’s household went from 21.9% in 2003 to 17.3% in 2019 before plummeting to 14.1% in 2021).
If you want to see the pretty striking visualization, click here. That piece is part of larger piece by economic Bryce Ward, highlighting the numbers and (as it was published right before Thanksgiving) also softly encouraging people to say yes to invitations: it’s good to be with other people, for any number of reasons.
I don’t disagree with that premise — but apart from the pandemic, I also think there are a number of intersecting, compounding reasons (some frustrating, some infuriating, some liberating) as to why people are spending more time alone, and why, as Ward points out, the decline really accelerated in earnest a decade ago.
The likelihood of spending more time alone increases as you grow older, but teens, too, are spending a whole lot less time with others. Total time spent alone has increased across pretty much every demographic, but as Enghin Atalay, a researcher for the Federal Reserve, points out, the trend towards alone-ness is more pronounced for people with less education, with lower-income, for men, and for people in non-white households.
I think there are some straightforward ways you could talk about this increase in time spent alone, pointing squarely, and pretty reductively, at cell phones + Covid. I have my thoughts, and I could write them. A lot of those thoughts would be presumptive, or based on other survey data, and not do what I think the best writing on survey data does: talk to a lot of people about why they’re making (or forced to make) these decisions on a daily basis. And so, as with the piece around calendars, I think I’ll write a much better piece if we just generally talk more, think more, about this shift towards time alone.
The fear — as expressed in so many of these pieces — is that more time spent alone correlates directly to lower “well-being” scores. Humans need to be with other humans, etc. etc. And that makes sense. But I’d also like us to break it down more, and think, too, about why suggestions to change individual actions (“say yes to the dinner invite!”) feel so hollow.
I usually commenting exclusive to paid subscribers because it makes it so I don’t have to allocate significant time to difficult task of moderation. Today, because it worked well when we did this a few months ago when we thought through the calendar, I’m again opening this conversation up to all readers.
Our rules here are straightforward: don’t be assholes, don’t be bigoted, don’t treat this space like it’s Twitter, behave like you’re responding to a real person because you are, and do everything in good faith. Failure to abide by those standards gets you permanently banned. Again: don’t be assholes about spending time alone and let’s keep this one of the good places on the internet.
For free subscribers — this is an expanded example of the sorts of conversations we have in the Friday Thread every week — conversations readers love to participate and lurk in. If you’re interesting in having them in your inbox once a week, consider pulling the trigger and becoming a paid subscriber.
If you’re a paid subscriber, thank you, again, for being patient with this writing process — you make this work possible and sustainable, and I appreciate you beyond words. (Also, scroll down in the email form of the newsletter, your Sunday links are still there!)
Some prompts to get us started:
What are the barriers and structures that make it harder to spend time with people outside your home? The character of work, of course, but also the character of social gatherings, the way we organize and understand family, city planning, and so much more? What else is happening with place, with how we think of entertaining and hosting and homes, with childcare, that facilitates or makes it more difficult to be with others?
If you spend a lot of time alone: why? What’s satisfying about it, and what’s a struggle?
If you don’t spend a lot of time alone: unpack what has made that time possible.
In general: what doesn’t show up in simple conversations about this decline in time spent with others?
What freedom, what frustration, what roadblocks, what else that you sense has changed in your own life and the lives of others but just have never been asked to really sit and articulate?
What, as Dan Bouk put it earlier this week, are the stories in the data?
One of the greatest joys of living alone, for me, is to think of my great-great grandmothers (and further back than that) who were constantly surrounded by noise, and required by circumstance and custom and law to acquire a husband and raise large numbers of children. I'm single by choice; I live alone; I have a career; I have a lovely home. I am living a life they could only have dreamed about, and I am so, so grateful for it.
I used to be an extremely social person, the one that got the group together. Then, I ran into reluctance. Some friends had kids. Some had limited free time, and wouldn’t commit to a date until closer in. Some would commit and then cancel at the last minute. For a while, I took it very personally: they didn’t just have a conflict, they were rejecting me! Then, I decided to flip my viewpoint. I would do things I really wanted to do. If I mentioned it and someone said they wanted to come, they were welcome, but I would go, regardless of whether I had a date.
I got used to doing things alone - movies, restaurants, concerts, book events - I’ve even bought season baseball tickets alone. Sometimes, when you do things alone, you actually meet other people who enjoy what you like to do. And you end up with company after all.