The Joint Economic Committee of the US congress recently released an unusual document (pdf). The report, titled “What We Do Together,” presupposes that Americans feel a “sense of loss” for the “golden age” of social cohesion of the mid-twentieth century and then seeks to investigate all the ways that the American social fabric is decaying.
The report is essentially a compendium of statistics on the ways that social life has changed since the 1970s in the areas of family, community, religion, and work. The authors point out that compared to the 1970s, people today are less likely to attend church or hang out with their neighbors, and more likely to be single parents. The report also notes that much has stayed the same: People spend no less time with their families, are no less likely to volunteer, and median job tenures are actually longer now they were than in the 1970s.
Perhaps the most original insight of the report is the finding that Americans don’t hang out with their coworkers as much as they used to. “Between the mid-1970s and 2012, the average amount of time Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 spent with their coworkers outside the workplace fell from about two-and-a-half hours to just under one hour” per week, write the authors, citing statistics from the American Time Use Survey. Quartz double checked the report’s calculations, and though we did not exactly replicate their numbers, it appears to be true, Americans don’t spend nearly as much time with coworkers these days.
The report frames the decrease in social time with coworkers as a loss—as another way Americans are deprived of a sense of togetherness. Academic research also suggests the office is increasingly transactional, a place University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology Adam Grant says we go “to be efficient, not to form bonds.”
As with many of the changes noted in “What We Do Together,” less socializing with coworkers doesn’t come with any inherent value. Though it sounds like a negative trend, it’s not hard to see a case that less social time spent with coworkers is indicative of improvements to life in America. It could, for example, be seen as a healthy change that allows people to make clearer delineations between work and home, or a result of improvements in technologies that allow Americans to maintain closer relationships with old friends.