Numerous economists, sociologists, and psychologists have argued that social ties, while difficult to measure precisely, are an important contributor to an individual’s job market success, physical and mental health, and overall well-being.1 Moreover, having relationships among individuals from different households can increase one’s economic mobility as well as the development of social capital, creating opportunities for more positive human interactions.2 Social relationships are highly relevant to individuals and to society at large, so measuring how they have changed over time, both on average and disparately across demographic groups, is of paramount importance.3
In his paper, “A Twenty-First Century of Solitude? Time Alone and Together in the United States,” Enghin Atalay examines trends in the amount of time individuals, ages 18 and up, spend alone and the impact of solitude on well-being. Atalay argues that well-being depends not only on what goods and services an individual purchases or on how an individual’s time is allocated to different activities but also on the emotional support, assistance, and information an individual receives from others in their social network. If certain individuals receive inadequate support from other people, Atalay adds, then “conventional income, consumption expenditure, and even time allocation measures may miss a key component of well-being.”
To measure time alone, Atalay uses data available from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for the period from 2003 to 2020. The survey asks respondents where they were and what they were doing during the previous day on a minute-by-minute basis. For certain activities — those excluding work, sleep, and personal grooming activities — respondents also described who they were with. The author also uses a supplement of the ATUS covering 2012 and 2013 to evaluate an each respondent's subjective view of their well-being.
Atalay reports that, between 2003 and 2019, people spent an increasing amount of time alone. Over this 16-year period, the portion of free time people spent alone increased, on average, from 43.5 percent to 48.7 percent, representing an increase of over 5 percentage points. Then, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the share of time that individuals spent in solitude increased, on average, to over half of their free time (50.7 percent).
The author found that the post-2003 increases in alone time are more pronounced for individuals with low socioeconomic status — specifically, individuals without a college education, those who are non-White, and those from lower-income households. In 2003, for example, individuals who never attended college spent slightly less time alone, on average, than individuals who did (42.9 percent versus 43.9 percent). However, by 2019, time alone among individuals who never attended college was, on average, 4.7 percentage points higher than for those who did.
Atalay considers the types of interactions that have become less prevalent since 2003. Mirroring the overall increase in time spent alone, the fraction of free time spent with other individuals from other households decreased on average, from 21.9 percent in 2003 to 17.3 percent in 2019, representing a 4.6 percentage point decline. (In the first year of the pandemic, this fraction declined even further, falling sharply to an average of 12.3 percent.) Although all demographic groups saw a decline in time spent with individuals outside of the home, the greatest declines were among people who never attended college, were from low-income households, and were non-White. According to Atalay, the downward trends in time spent with others outside of the home “portend a deterioration in social ties.”
What accounts for the observed increase in solitude? The change in the amount of time alone, Atalay finds, is mostly attributable to the shift toward spending more time alone on leisure activities at home — that is, at the expense of leisure time spent outside of the home and with other people. He reported that all demographic groups spent more of their leisure activity in the home. In particular, he found that people spent more time alone watching television, with especially large increases in television viewing among people who never attended college.
Also, Atalay found that individuals who spent more time in solitude at home reported lower (subjective) well-being. Moreover, reported enjoyment of a leisure activity was consistently less when one took part in it alone. The author explains that “since time alone has increased most sharply for the less educated, non-White, and lower-income individuals, these trends in time alone may represent a salient source of increasing well-being inequality.”
Future trends in time use remain uncertain, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Atalay concludes his paper with a question: “Will [the pandemic] leave a permanent impact on how, where, and with whom Americans spend their free time?” The findings from his paper suggest that if future increases in isolation do materialize, it may reflect increasing inequality in well-being among U.S. demographic groups.
- The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia or the Federal Reserve System.
- For more on this topic, see Matthew Jackson, Brian Rogers, and Yves Zenou, “The Economic Consequences of Social-Network Structure,” Journal of Economic Literature, 55:1 (2017), pp. 49–95; Peggy Thoits, “Mechanisms Linking Social Ties and Support to Physical and Mental Health,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 52:2 (2011), pp. 145–161; and Ed Diener and Martin Seligmann, “Very Happy People,” Psychological Science, 13:1 (2002), pp. 81–84.
- See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000; and Raj Chetty, Matthew Jackson, Theresa Kuchler, et al., “Social Capital I: Measurement and Associations with Economic Mobility,” Nature, 608 (2022), pp. 108–121.
- Past efforts at measuring trends in social relationships include Jean Twenge, Brian Spitzberg, and Keith Campbell, “Less In-Person Social Interaction with Peers Among U.S. Adolescents in the 21st Century and Links to Loneliness,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36:6 (2019), pp. 1892–1913; and Timo Anttila, Kirsikka Selander, and Tomi Oinas, “Disconnected Lives: Trends in Time Spent Alone in Finland,” Social Indicators Research, 150 (2020), pp. 711–730. The former paper reports decreasing socialization over the past four decades among U.S. high school students. The latter documents declining socialization among Finnish adults between 1987 and 2010.