Friendships? Ah, They're Just a 20th-Century Concept: We Must Now Make Do with Unbonded Friends

By Mooer, Suzanne | New Statesman (1996), April 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Friendships? Ah, They're Just a 20th-Century Concept: We Must Now Make Do with Unbonded Friends


Mooer, Suzanne, New Statesman (1996)


Some years ago when a friend of mine was involved in producing a British version of Wired magazine, he took me out to dinner with some of the cutting-edge Americans involved. God knows why - I think I had only just graduated from an Amstrad. Anyway these people were wired, weird and extremely clever. They lived in another world. It wasn't even California. It was worse. The conversation was so out there, as they say, I tried to engage on a more personal level.

This is always a mistake. One of these guys was extremely important - a guru of cyberspace and extremely rich. He lived in Geneva, on the West Coast, on the East Coast and sometimes in Paris.

"It must be difficult," I ventured, "keeping up friendships." "I find the concept of friendship just so 20th century," he replied. Friends, he told me, were just the people you were with at the time, wherever you were. I had been put in my place. Sadly, I had not graduated, as he clearly had, to the 21st century. I spent the rest of the evening talking about drugs with some of the other guys, strange, pierced, awkward geeks. At least they didn't try and dress up their social inadequacy as some kind of philosophy.

But I thought about it when I read of new research that said that we all have fewer friends than we used to. Apparently, thirtysomethings have fewer friends than they would have done 20 years ago, but the friendships they have are more intense.

The sociology professor who conducted this research concludes that this is because middle-class attitudes are taking over. We move around more because of work, families fragment, we marry later and get divorced more often. The need for friendship is greater than ever, but we are more ruthless about it. We are happy to let go of people if they don't fit in with our lifestyles any more.

The last time l read anything about friendship it was about how friendship was replacing the family. This discussion was brought about by the success of the programme Friends, in which six attractive young people live together as a surrogate family. Actual family members in this American comedy are seen as a kind of embarrassing intrusion into the intimate but wacky world they live in.

The sociologists make a distinction between bonded friends and unbonded ones. Or between close friends and less close ones, I suppose. For the average urbanite, an unbonded friendship might last up to seven years, and they can look forward to abandoning at least 1,000 friends over a lifetime. If this is true, it paints a rather sad picture of contemporary life. The rise of middle-class attitudes may not be as rosy as it is often portrayed. People may be wealthier, but we are in many ways lonelier. If we are so preoccupied with our jobs that we don't have the time or the energy for other people, then can we really be said to be living the good life? …

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