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Gary Younge
Nation No-Mates

Forget Chandler, Rachel, Ross and company. Never mind Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. Not only are they off the air; even at their most popular they were already out of date.

During the era which saw the nuclear family replaced by impromptu social units of friends, former lovers and flatmates in American sitcoms, the number of Americans who could say they had close friends plummeted. Confirming the central thrust of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, a study (pdf) released in the American sociological review today shows that Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than they did 20 years ago. In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them. In 2004, it dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all.

"You usually don't see that kind of big social change in a couple of decades," the study's co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina told USA Today.

As an outsider it is not difficult to see why. Given the long hours Americans work, the pathetic holiday entitlement they have, the huge suburban and exurban areas they live in and the huge commutes they demand making and cementing real human connections can be difficult. That's not necessarily as true in New York, San Fransisco, Chicago, Seattle and a handful of other "walking cities". But friends take time and time is one of the things the American worker does not have a lot of.

This is partly the unspoken cost of the huge increase in productivity of the American worker, which is so often hailed by economists. It is also unspoken gain of the European attitude to work which so many in France, in particular, keep taking to the streets to defend. In short, what's the point in being better off if you have no time to enjoy it and no one to enjoy it with?

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