Is the 40s ‘Friendship Dip’ Specific to Millennials?

No, you weren’t imagining it

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I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship lately. As a married, 41-year-old mom, I’ve come to understand that—no offense to my husband and child—friendship is the life blood that will guide me through the best and worst of times. My immune system is bolstered by it. It will help me live longer. Heck, friends can even help me sleep and heal better. Still, as I enter my fifth decade on this planet, why is friendship becoming so difficult to come by?

According to journalist Anne Helen Peterson—and her brilliant Substack ‘Culture Study’—it all comes down to something that she’s dubbed the Friendship Dip.

By the Friendship Dip, she means the period of our lives—primarily our 40s—that just isn’t conducive to forging or sustaining friends or community. “In many cases, I’d say it’s actually hostile to it,” she notes.

She bases her theory on a recent Pew Research Study about the state of friendship in America, which uses data to describe the fact that close friendships tend to nosedive during our late 30s, 40s and 50s. Whereas teens and those aged 65 or older report a large number of close friends, there’s a clear dip for those in between. (According to two different studies from Pew, 98 percent of teens report having one or more close friends and 49 percent of those ages 65 and older say they have five or more close friends. Just 34 percent of those 30 to 49 report having five or more close friends.)

So, what gives? Peterson chalks it up to work. But, as she describes, it’s “not just normal work, but all-consuming work, slippery work, work that becomes the central axis of our lives, either out of necessity or compulsion.” Add to that our instincts toward American individualism and the idea that we focus “what small amount of energy we have either on optimizing ourselves (exercise, skin care, ‘self-care’) or on our very close familial circle (that amorphous, ever-expanding activity known as ‘parenting.’)”

This isn’t something we can necessarily change—we have to work to support our families; parents have to shuttle their kids to soccer. But it does make us wonder: Have 30- to 50-year-olds always had fewer friends, or is this specific to our generation?

Peterson explains that older folks surely have more time, assuming they’re retired, to fill their social calendars. But she also thinks there’s more to it: Boomers are simply more practiced at friendship. “They’re not the peak ‘joiners’ that their parents were in the post-war period, but they grew up in households that were much more likely to have strong connections to religious and community organizations in some capacity.” In other words, being a part of something—say, a gardening club or a woman’s league—was the norm. “They have the muscle memory of showing up, helping out and spending time visiting about nothing and everything,” she adds.

So, how do we make like the older (and younger) generations and practice being more social? As my therapist preaches, we need to start by acknowledging the problem in order to make better choices. For example, I try to recognize the value of my weekly group tennis lesson with friends, even on the days I’m inclined to skip it. Additionally, I’ve been pushing myself to prioritize five-minute phone calls with pals, to suggest more spontaneous coffee dates, to remind myself that sometimes the work can wait. I’m also doing my best to elevate in-person time above text and social media connection. For instance, keeping my phone in my pocket while walking home from school drop-off, so I’m more available for impromptu chats with fellow parents walking the same route.

Bottom line: We millennials can’t change all our priorities on a dime. But it might behoove us to behave more like our parents who were less involved in the lives of their children and less worried about career dominance and personal optimization. Maybe we simply need to prioritize a good hang.

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Royal family expert, a cappella alum, mom

Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...