Rebuilding Communities in a ‘Friendship Recession'
The Daily Telegraph, 22 May 2023
How many people can you talk to without having to watch what you say? In 1984, Australian adults averaged nine trusted friends. A generation later it had fallen to five.
Two decades ago the typical person got together socially with others about once a week. In a new survey, the average person's response was closer to once a fortnight.
Even before the pandemic community engagement was declining. In Reconnected: A Community Builder's Handbook, Nick Terrell and I documented a drop in the share of Australians playing organised sport, volunteering, attending religious services, joining a union, donating to charity or joining community organisations.
Are we facing a friendship recession? The evidence certainly seems to point that way. Compared with four decades ago, Australians have almost half as many friends and we catch up with our mates only about half as often.
What has caused the drop in friendships? Part of the reason is that fewer shared activities mean fewer chances to make friends. We meet some of our friends in sporting teams, religious communities and social clubs. Lower rates of joining translates to fewer friends.
Has the internet made up for the decline in friendship? Largely, no. The great hope of social networks was that they would expand face-to-face connections, but many seem to be replacing them instead.
What might we do to solve the problem? Social researcher Richard Reeves argues that the first step is to recognise that cultivating friendships requires work.
He notes that men are reluctant to express the vulnerability that comes from saying “I need a friend”. Men's Sheds have played an effective role in addressing this need, but they're not the whole solution.
To revitalise communities we need to recognise the social value of joining and encourage organisations that are connecting others.
As a government, we've set a target to double philanthropy by 2030 and kicked off a once-in-a-generation Productivity Commission inquiry to explore how to encourage a generous nation to further boost rates of giving.
To share ideas with charities, I've held forums in every capital city and online, discussing the challenges and opportunities in the community sector.
We've appointed Sue Woodward to head of the charities commission, recognising the value of charitable advocacy and making it easier to get tax-deductible status. But we're also thinking about the long-term health of Australia's charities.
Rebuilding community isn't a job for government alone, but government needs to play its part.
Whether it's through supporting community sport, developing resilience in disaster areas or helping new migrants join local groups, a smart government can help create connections. A stronger community will benefit us all.
This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 22 May 2023.