For some, turning thirty marks the first birthday event that seems vaguely unsettling. Thirty just sounds so different than 20 or even 29. Pressures to get married already bear down on those who are single, and the “when’s the baby coming?” questions start popping up in the conversations with people who are married but have no kids.
Thirty can also be a time when your body no longer seems to function as seamlessly as it once did (if it once did). That can be a rude shock, too.
A challenge far less frequently recognized is that after 30 (or thereabouts), it can also become more difficult to make friends. In your teens and twenties, if you are friendship-fortunate, like-minded people open to friendship are all around you. Not so later on.
Recently in the New York Times, Alex Williams’ story, “Friends of a certain age,” rightfully climbed up the list of the most e-mailed articles soon after it appeared. The tease for the article is, “Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?”
Williams did his research, and offered some thoughtful answers. From his conversation with sociologist Rebecca Adams, he offered this observation (the bullet point formatting is mine):
“As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends:
- repeated, unplanned interactions; and
- a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”
In your thirties and beyond, these criteria become harder to meet. The workplace seems to be a plausible setting, but people too often change projects or jobs, thereby nixing the proximity and recurring spontaneous interactions. What’s more, the work environment can be competitive, which is not exactly conducive to letting your hair down and sharing secrets.
From his interviews with authors and experts, Williams also learned that
“After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with…”
With a nod to Stanford Professor Laura Carstensen’s concept of “socioemotional selectivity” (without using that jargon), Williams also points out that as people age, they are no longer all that interested in expanding their circles of friends. Instead, they prefer to nurture the bonds they already have.
I was loving this article, and then when I got to the following sentence, I thought I was going to love it even more:
“Once people start coupling up, the challenges only increase.”
I thought Williams was going to acknowledge the challenges to people who are single when their friends couple-up, and act like they’ve joined the Married Couples Club – no singles allowed! One-time close friends get left by the wayside, prior history and affection be damned.
No, that’s not where he was headed. Instead, we hear a lament about how hard it is to find pairs of couples in which all four people like all of the other people.
Then there’s this: “Adding children to the mix muddles things further.” At least I knew what was coming this time. Not that people with no children are ditched by their friends who have children, but instead: “Suddenly, you are surrounded by a new circle of parent friends – but the emotional ties can be tenuous at best.”
It is great to see adult friendships getting the attention they deserve. People who are single, however, now comprise nearly half of the adult population in the U.S. The number of women not having children, whether they are single or coupled, is also growing. It is not appropriate to write about adults and their friendships while neglecting many millions of single people and people who have no children. Their friendship-making challenges can be daunting, too.
Friends photo available from Shutterstock