Can College Fraternities Combat the Friendship Recession?
In recent years, research has highlighted a growing crisis in male friendships. A decline in close connections among men, coined the "friendship recession," has been linked to many detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Recent work by Daniel Cox and Richard Reeves has contributed to our understanding of this phenomenon and its implications.
The Friendship Recession | Richard Reeves, 2023. via Big Think.
The Friendship Recession
Daniel Cox, director of the American Enterprise Institute's Survey Center on American Life, finds nearly 15% of men report having no close friends. This figure has more than doubled in the past three decades, highlighting the severity of the friendship recession. Men are also far less likely than women are to have received emotional support from a friend -- with 41% of women report having received emotional support from a friend within the past week, compared to 21% of men. The decline in male friendships has been attributed to various factors, including changing work and family dynamics, the rise of social media, and societal expectations surrounding masculinity.
The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges, and Loss, The Survey Center on American Life. 2021.
The Importance of Male Friendships
The deterioration of male friendships should not be taken lightly. As Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has noted, close friendships are essential for emotional support, mental health, and overall well-being. Men with strong social networks experience lower rates of depression and anxiety, and benefit from increased resilience in times of stress. Reeves believes we’re witnessing a “deinstitutionalization of male friendship” and contemplates the idea that male friendship may require more institutional support or “social scaffolding.” Male friendships might well be formed and sustained through school, or work, or sport or church.
In essence, solutions to the friendship recession for men may well require a focus on the conditions under which friendships among men are most likely to form and flourish.
The Potential of Fraternity and GBTQ+ Men
In light of the friendship recession and the “deinstitutionalization” of male friendship, it is worth considering whether college fraternities can provide a valuable space for men to forge close friendships and combat this disturbing trend. Fraternities offer a unique environment where men can bond over shared experiences, interests, and values. These organizations, at their best, promote brotherhood, trust, and camaraderie, which can help members establish deep and lasting friendships. Moreover, fraternities often engage in community service and philanthropic efforts, which can foster a sense of purpose and belonging among members. By working together toward a common goal, fraternity brothers can develop strong connections and shared experiences that strengthen their friendships.
An often-overlooked aspect in discussions of male friendships is where GBTQ+ men may be able to play a unique role. While data on the friendship recession doesn’t offer much empirical insight into the state of GBTQ+ friendships – GBTQ+ men have often had to create alternative support systems and close-knit communities to cope with adversity. As a result, many GBTQ+ men have developed strong, emotionally intimate friendships that challenge traditional notions of masculinity. For both GBTQ+ and straight men it’s clear there is a need to model friendships that embrace vulnerability, emotional openness, and empathy. The early first steps to modeling that behavior may well need to come from GBTQ+ men in fraternities.
The friendship recession is a growing concern with significant implications for men's well-being. College fraternities, when at their best, have the potential to offer men the opportunity to develop close and supportive friendships that can improve their mental and emotional health. When SigEp is successful at fostering an environment of inclusivity and positive values, it seems clear we could provide valuable “social scaffolding” to help alleviate the friendship recession and promote stronger male friendships in society.