The ‘Quiet Catastrophe’ Brewing in Our Social Lives
It’s impossible to deny that the U.S. has a serious loneliness problem. One 2018 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 22 percent of all adults — almost 60 million Americans — said they often or always felt lonely or socially isolated. That was a full two years before the Covid pandemic. And Americans appear to be getting lonelier over time: From 1990 to 2021, there was a 25 percentage point decrease in the number of Americans who reported having five or more close friends. Young people now report feeling lonelier than the elderly.
This widespread loneliness is often analogized to a disease, an epidemic. But that label obscures something important: Loneliness in America isn’t merely the result of inevitable or abstract forces, like technological progress; it’s the product of social structures we’ve chosen — wittingly or unwittingly — to build for ourselves.
Sheila Liming is an associate professor of communications and creative media at Champlain College and the author of the new book “Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time.” In the book, Liming investigates what she calls the “quiet catastrophe” brewing in our social lives: the devastating fact that we’ve grown much less likely to simply spend time together outside our partnerships, workplaces and family units. What would it look like to reconfigure our world to make social connection easier for all of us?
We discuss how the structures of our lives and physical spaces have made atomization rather than community our society’s default setting, the surprising class differences in how far we live from our families, the social costs of wearing headphones and earbuds in public, how technology has enabled us to avoid the social awkwardness and rejection inherent in building community, the fact that the nuclear family is a historical aberration — and maybe a mistake, how texting and “ghosting” affect the resilience of our core relationships, why shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” are entirely built around socializing at the office and what we are losing in an era of increased remote work, why some parents are revolting against their kids having sleepovers and more.
“You’d Be Happier Living Closer to Friends. Why Don’t You?” by Anne Helen Petersen
“The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” by David Brooks
Full Surrogacy Now by Sophie Lewis
Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson
Black Paper by Teju Cole
On the Inconvenience of Other People by Lauren Berlant
The Hare by Melanie Finn
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You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.
This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, with Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma and Kristin Lin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair. Mixing by Jeff Geld. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. Special thanks to Sonia Herrero and Kristina Samulewski.