The Male Friendship Equation: Meeting a Loneliness Crisis Head-On

Americans are increasingly isolated, especially men. This month, instead of despairing, we’re exploring the state of male friendship, warts and all.

April 1, 2024 7:52 am
An illustration of a group of men. We look at the state of male friendships and what some are calling the "male friendship recession."
How many close friends, outside your family, would you say you have?
Danica Killelea

For all of our chest-thumping about rugged individualism, here in America, we’d be hopelessly lost without our friends.  

A Pew survey last year found that 61% of adults in this country believe that having close friends is extremely or very important to a fulfilling life. That may not immediately seem like an incredible number, until you consider that only 26% said the same about having children, and only 23% about being married. Even when we’re not hanging out with our friends, we spend countless hours in front of the TV watching reruns of Seinfeld, Sex and the City and Friends, shows at their core that celebrate not romantic or familial relationships, but those exceptional platonic ones — the ones that will eventually convince us to turn off the TV, get off the couch and go out into the world. To meet them, of course. 

If we cherish our friends so much, then why are we all so lonely? We appear to live in a country where the plans you have after work are more important than the paycheck you’re siphoning from to pay for a round of drinks (only 24% in the aforementioned survey said “having a lot of money” was crucial to a fulfilling life), but U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy made the extraordinary step last year of declaring an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” In the introduction to an accompanying report, he explained that one-in-two adults in the U.S. experience measurable loneliness. This was even before the pandemic.

“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health,” Dr. Murthy wrote. “It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”

If that’s the analogue we’re going with, then men are the chain-smokers. The data behind what’s been called the “male friendship recession,” a particularly acute slice of the larger loneliness epidemic, is startling: In 1990, 55% of men said they had six or more close friends, not counting relatives; by 2021, that number had plummeted to 27%. Meanwhile, 3% of men in 1990 said they had no close friends at all; by 2021, that had jumped to 15%. Those distressing numbers, provided by a survey of over 2,000 people from the Survey Center on American Life, were a wake-up call to the nation. Since their release three years ago, other researchers have found much of the same: While we’re all increasingly disconnected from each other, men are even more adrift. 

In 2023, a survey found that 61% of American adults believe having close friends is extremely or very important to a fulfilling life. In 2021, a different survey found that 15% of American men say they have no close friends.

These statistics are troubling, but they’re not exactly surprising, especially if you take stock of the slow, methodical whittling down of community in 21st-century America. How have your daily interactions changed since 10 or 20 years ago? Maybe your local coffee shop was replaced by a Starbucks, where they incentivize people to order on their phones and take the lattes to go instead of staying awhile. Maybe your local hardware store, where you used to shoot the breeze about home improvements and couldn’t find anything in the mismatched aisles except by asking your neighbors who worked there, was replaced by a cavernous big-box store. Maybe your local movie theater, the fake-butter-scented epicenter of date nights and family outings, has become a ghost town as streaming becomes the new default. Even when it comes to something as seemingly trivial as meeting up for wings and beer to bet on March Madness brackets: who needs to do that when you can stay home and wager big money on a legal betting app? 

It’s no secret that male friendships have fallen off a cliff in recent years, just as it’s no secret that our larger sense of community has been disrupted by a variety of modern forces, from the accelerating pace of new technology to sweeping workforce changes. You don’t need a survey of 2,000 random Americans to tell you this. You know it, I know it, but chances are you’re not confronting the problem. So, this month, that’s what we’re going to do — together.

This April at InsideHook, we’re running a series of stories that orbit this phenomenon, whether you call it the male friendship recession, the male friendship crisis or the epidemic of loneliness. But because there’s no one lever to pull for a nationwide friendship rebound, no single cure-all for the innumerable platonic relationships that fall under that wide umbrella, we’re calling our series The Male Friendship Equation

Is there a friend you’ve lost touch with, or worse, cut out of your life only to realize the gaping hole months down the road? We’ve tapped experts for advice to accomplish the tricky feat of repairing those relationships. Are you worried that the elephant in the room here is our nation’s political polarization — or, perhaps, simply worried that you can’t connect with a pal anymore because they’re a Trump supporter and you’re a Biden booster? We get into that too, with interviews with friends who have managed to reach across the country’s biggest divides. Maybe your most pressing concern is the most basic question of all: How do I make new friends as an adult? We sent a reporter out on just that mission. If you think first dates are nerve-racking, wait until you read about the misadventures in the world of friendship apps.

Whether you’d respond to that survey on American life saying you have 10 close friends or none, we’ll have stories that’ll make you look at friendship in a new light. We won’t plead that you post them on Facebook or share them to your Instagram Stories. Instead, if an article catches your eye, maybe you’ll text it to a buddy. And like the Republican and Democrat that I spoke with earlier this month, maybe you’ll put it on the agenda to discuss the next time you meet up at a cafe and get your latte to stay. 

Read the Full Series Here

The Male Friendship Equation: Stories, Interviews and Advice During an “Epidemic of Loneliness”
American men are in the midst of a friendship crisis, so we’re turning our attention to these all-important platonic relationships

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!