- After 2020, Americans' time spent socializing and communicating during weekdays plummeted.
- Unlike past recessions, that amount of socializing hasn't rebounded. We're not talking to each other.
- That's due to organic social opportunities falling away, and remaining ones getting more expensive.
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Griffin Leeds knew something was off when someone walked into the restaurant he worked at and asked if they could buy food and sit down.
"I was like, yeah, my guy, it's a restaurant. That's the whole gig. That is what this is. That's what this business does," the 31-year-old waiter, who lives in Brooklyn, said.
That was in June 2021, when the world was first starting to reopen. Vaccines were widely available, and Americans were tiptoeing back outdoors. But it doesn't seem like they have remembered how to be there — and some have continued to opt out altogether.
"There's definitely still times where I think in the service industry, I've noticed people forgetting that they're in a restaurant and not their living rooms," Leeds said. Yes, that includes taking off their shoes and socks.
That might be because Americans are spending less and less time talking to each other during the week. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey shows that the number of minutes responding Americans spend socializing and communicating during the week has plummeted since 2019. It's a trend that follows past recessions: During downturns where Americans lose their jobs en masse, they tend to lose the structure of an office that brings them together with other people.
But, unlike the Great Recession, there's been no rebound in chatting with each other even as more workers return to the office. Since the pandemic-induced recession in early 2020, socializing hasn't recovered. In fact, it seems to have only plummeted more.
That could explain why, if 2023 socializing feels off to you, you're not alone. With the loss of structures for socializing, including offices, independent concert venues, and travel after 2020, either organic replacements haven't formed yet or many people get rapidly priced out of them. That could be bad news for all of us.
Working from home and being all alone can be both great — and bad — for us
Office workers, even if they don't like it, are forced to talk to a lot of people in the course of their day. From commutes to coffee shops to happy hours, much of their day is built around chatting with each other. And that's good for us.
"Socializing has a tremendously positive effect for people. It enhances brain networks that are involved in reducing stress," Yvette Sheline, a professor of psychiatry, radiology, and neurology and the director of the Center for Neuromodulation in Depression and Stress at the University of Pennsylvania, told Insider. "We are social creatures. We have been for millions of years. That sort of social group aspect of our lives can't be underplayed."
In addition to shutting down centers of social interaction, the pandemic forced many people to reckon with loss and turmoil on a scale that many had never experienced. A year into the pandemic, Emily Hessney Lynch, a 32-year-old social-media consultant, lost two loved ones.
"Just because I've been through so much, I feel like my tolerance for fakeness and small talk has faded even more than what little I had before. It feels very different now to go out and try to make small talk at a gathering or something," Hessney Lynch said.
It's a social reckoning that many faced in 2020. At the same time, work — the structure that governs what people's daily lives look like —was also undergoing a big change with the widespread rise of remote work. That was a boon for many. All of a sudden, life and work could happen on their own terms, and where they wanted it. For a lot of people, that meant the ability to make choices that were healthier for them: Research has found that the time saved by logging on from home means people were able to pour more hours into leisure and caregiving — and more work.
But it might come at the cost of talking to other humans. Losing those built-in, pre-pandemic structures of socializing has been "the most insidious thing," Sheline said — especially as nothing has risen to take their place, with indie venues shuttering and tens of thousands of beloved local restaurants closing left and right.
"That means expending energy and really thinking about it all the time to make it part of your life," Sheline said. "Nobody's going to do it for you. It used to just sort of happen before."
For those going into the office, face-to-face time is particularly valuable. The Global Survey of Working Arrangements asked over 42,000 workers across 34 countries from April through May 2023 how they're spending their work time, and what it means to them. Of those working in-person, 62% of respondents said socializing with coworkers is a top benefit of being on premises, and around 54% of respondents said face-to-face collaboration was a top benefit.
Meanwhile, while workers overwhelmingly cited having no commute and saving money on gas and food as top benefits of working from home, about 35% of responding workers said that the top benefit was individual quiet time.
Going out got more expensive
There's no one exact way to replicate those pre-pandemic structures. And some people may not want to socialize, or can't lead a social life the way they had before COVID, whether due to illness or other factors, such as increased susceptibility to disease.
While quiet time and working from home might be a boon for work life, there's still the challenge of fitting socializing around it. The office may have presented a no-cost forum for seeing coworkers and a launching point for plans after work; it's now extra effort and more costly to get out these days.
"I'm always wanting to go out and check out new restaurants and coffee shops or see friends and go to concerts and stuff," Hessney Lynch said. "But also the economy is so weird right now, and inflation is so high. It's like, well we shouldn't spend too much money."
Indeed, even as inflation cools, the consumer price index for food away from home has been rising at a slower rate than last year but is still historically high, with prices increasing by 7.1% from July 2022 to July 2023. Leeds said that remote work has shifted where people are and whether they're going out to eat — before, Thursday used to be a bustling night, a pre-Friday dinner celebration. Now, it's much quieter, and people are spending less.
"I used to see people buying drinks and things like that on a Thursday night, splitting appetizers on a Thursday night," he said. "Now, on a Thursday I'm more likely to see people like a couple coming in and they're splitting their entrée."
Sheline said there are some key questions people should be asking themselves, such as: "Are you really paying attention to how social you are in your life? Or are you forgetting to do that?"
And for many people, the answers to Sheline's questions may be "no," especially as socializing morphs into another expensive chore — albeit one that's important for us.
"Prior to the pandemic, my social calendar was much more like wherever the wind took me," Leeds said. He added that now, "it's almost like forcing myself to go to the gym or something, of like, no, this is good for me — it's important for having a healthy, balanced lifestyle."
Are you socializing less because of how your work is set up, or because going out is more costly? Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.