How capitalism is destroying your friendships

A post-pandemic focus on hyper-individualism means our social circles are smaller than ever.

by Daisy Schofield
02 February 2022, 7:00am

In times of crisis, people are prone to reevaluating their lives. The pandemic has led many to reconsider where they live, their jobs, and in some cases, their most intimate relationships. For Jasmine*, 22, Covid presented an opportunity to distance herself from any “negative” or superfluous friends. “The pandemic put things into perspective,” she says. “You’d want to surround yourself with more positive people if you felt like the world was ending.” This meant prioritising what she describes as her “symbiotic” friendships.

Research by YouGov says she’s not alone: 18% of Britons says their close friend group has shrunk in the past year. Some of this was inevitable: with lockdown limiting opportunities to hang out, our social networks were forcibly shrunk to a select bubble. But as Covid restrictions have eased, terms like “friendscaping” and “friendship pruning”, or as Jasmine refers to it, “decluttering”, have been gaining traction. In essence, these terms propose that we ought to maintain our newly-whittled down groups, and take a more curatorial, quality over quantity approach to friendship.

However, the pandemic isn’t totally to blame for the shrinking of our social circles. Loneliness has reached epidemic levels in recent years, and the issue is especially pronounced in younger generations. The Office for National Statistics found that 16 to 24 year olds were five times more likely to say they had felt lonely in the past week than people aged between 65 and 74. Thirty years ago, 33% of Americans reported having 10 or more close friends. Now, it stands at just 13%.

Social media companies, while promising connection, have only compounded and exploited this loneliness. These platforms are, as Richard Seymour describes it in his book The Twittering Machine, “an escape route, a way to connect with someone who isn’t there, or is only there as a written trace; a ghost in the machine.” In other words, connecting on social media often only creates more disconnection.

But while loneliness is stigmatised, friendship pruning is often framed as a natural process. Emotional selectivity theory argues  that humans change their goals as they age, so it’s expected that people will shed friendships as they get older. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. “In other cultures, friendships at an older age tend to be much more robust – both qualitatively and quantitatively,” Kristen Ghodsee says, an ethnographer and author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. “There’s something unique about capitalism that makes us feel the need to pare back.”

Within our culture of extreme individualism, social ties are dissolved, and friendship is seen through the lens of a cost-benefit calculation. “Neoliberalism encourages us to organise every social, political and even emotional aspect of our lives as though we were an Excel spreadsheet,” Catherine Rottenberg says, author of The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism. “The value of people, the Earth’s resources, and all other living things are now judged by market categories such as profitability, dividends, and value appreciation — precisely like stock portfolios. We interact with ourselves and with other people as stock portfolios.”

Friendship therefore becomes something we ‘invest’ in, and if we don’t get a return on that investment, we might feel obliged to cut someone out. If this sounds ruthless, that’s because it often is. A recent article in the New York Times titled “How to Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic Friendscape” was widely lambasted for encouraging people to reconsider relationships with friends who are, in other words, depressed or obese. It’s hard not to see this ruthless purging as bordering on sociopathic.

In the same article, the writer talks about the “limited number of slots” that can be allocated to friends, pointing at the way that ‘friendscaping’ and similar terms are often bound up with productivity culture. Likewise, in her now-infamous appearance on the Diary of a CEO podcast, Molly-Mae Hague says she doesn’t have many friends; she’d “rather just focus on making money and being successful”. Molly-Mae’s hyper-glamorisation of the hustle is symptomatic of a belief that work is not only necessary for economic production, but is also the crux of one’s identity and life’s purpose. For those who worship at the altar of productivity, friendship is just another sacrifice.

But friendship pruning isn’t just the preserve of girl bosses; for most, it’s a necessary calculation. Many people are burned out and struggling to find the time to squeeze friendship into their relentless working lives. This is particularly true of gig workers, who tend to have less autonomy and control over their schedules, and for whom often, spending time with friends is weighed up against the prospect of another job.

It would seem that the more precarious a person’s working life is, the less time they have to spend with friends. This points to a worrying development: “What I fear is that meaningful human connection and friendship is going to become a socio-economic privilege of the wealthy,” Kristen says. This appears to already be the case, with statistics showing that people lower-down the socioeconomic ladder tend to be more lonely.

Advocates of friend pruning often focus on what they perceive to be the mental health benefits, over any economic calculation. Jasmine says that for her, friendship decluttering means that “you don't get drained constantly being the outlet for someone, because that obviously weighs down on you after a while”. Of course, we all have the right to set boundaries. But if pruning results in social isolation, because we perceive a friendship as a bad investment, lacking in utility, or time that could be spent working another shift, this indicates that something is deeply wrong with the way that friendship functions under capitalism.

And while there may be mental health benefits to setting boundaries, there are also advantages to having expansive social networks. Julianne Holt-Lunstad is a psychologist whose research has focused on the long-term health effects of social connection. “There’s evidence to show that both size and diversity of social networks has been linked to a variety of physical health outcomes, including risk for premature mortality,” she says. “And, interestingly, having a diversity of people in your social network is actually linked to lower susceptibility to viruses.”

It’s also true that negativity in relationships is linked to poorer health outcomes, and that, as Holt-Lunstand puts it, when it comes to friendship, “quality matters”. But this doesn’t mean that cutting people off is the answer. “There is some evidence to show that improving the quality of a relationship within an existing relationship is linked to better satisfaction,” she says. (It’s worth stating that this applies to ambivalent relationships — where there are both positive and negative qualities — and not where there’s abuse, and severe neglect).

Not only do wide, diverse friend networks benefit our health; they may also be seen as a tool for resisting capitalism. As Kristen points out: “Every time we hang out with our friends, we’re not participating in the market and we are undermining the structures that make our lives so much more difficult, precarious and lonely.” In this sense, in the face of a culture of individualism that seeks to atomise and isolate people, friendship is a radical act.

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mental health