- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

“We all need somebody to lean on,” says the old Bill Withers song, written about how West Virginia coal-mining families turned to one another during hard times.

But a new study suggests that many Americans are trying to go it alone: Between 1985 and 2004, the average American’s circle of “core” confidants shrank from three persons to two.

The study also found that the number of people who said they have “no one” to talk to about important things more than doubled, from 10 percent to 25 percent.

These changes, captured by comparing General Social Survey (GSS) data, “indicate something that’s not good for our society,” said Duke University sociology professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, co-author of the study that appears in this month’s issue of American Sociological Review.

For people, close ties to friends and family members create a personal “safety net” to handle daily problems and emergencies.

“These are people we can depend on for social support and help — someone you trust your children with, or your house,” Ms. Smith-Lovin said.

Friendships with nonrelatives are “a bridge to another part of the community,” she said. When people stay within the very small bonds of the nuclear family, “we’ve lost some of those bridges.”

Ms. Smith-Lovin and her colleagues speculate that longer work and commuting hours, wider geographical location of family members, and the rise of the Internet and other communication technologies are keeping people from building close, personal social networks.

Americans’ social interdependence — or lack thereof — has been a topic of public conversation at least since 1995, when Robert D. Putnam wrote an article for the Journal of Democracy called “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.”

Mr. Putnam warned that Americans had become increasingly detached from civic and neighborhood groups at no small social cost. He urged Americans to find new ways to reconnect.

The new study suggests that Americans are still moving away from, not toward, one another.

“The fact that a quarter of the population reports no serious discussion partners of any kind points to the possibility of mass loneliness in this country,” said William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration.

The new study is based on GSS questions that asked about 1,500 Americans in 1985 and 2004 to give the first name or initials of people with whom they can “discuss important matters.” The GSS collected a few details about these core confidants, such as whether they were friends or family members.

In 1985, the GSS found that the average American had 2.94 persons in his or her core discussion network. In 2004, this fell to 2.08 persons, with the “missing” confidant more likely to be a friend than a family member.

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