Is 25 really the time when you have the most number of friends, ever? (And should you care, given new research that only dumb people have lots of mates?) According to a new study widely reported in the press, your social network reaches its peak around the time you reach your mid-20s. But what hasn't been so widely discussed is that this downturn in fortune actually partially reverses itself in your 30s—for women, at least.
According to a joint study from Aalto University and the University of Oxford, published in Royal Society Open Science, men and women hit peak friendship at 25. Researchers found that men at this age had more social contacts than women, though it was downhill for both genders once they entered their late 20s.
For the next 20 years, these social circles begin to steadily dwindle to a core group of people—and the decline is faster for men. Once women hit 39, they actually become more connected than their male counterparts, though these social circles stabilize and plateau for both men and women between 45 and 55.
Scientists came to these conclusions after analyzing the anonymous call records, gender, and age information of three million mobile phone users from an unnamed European country. (For anyone wondering about how accurate phone information can be in an age where you're more likely to DM your best friend on Twitter, this data was taken from 2007 before the widespread use of most social networks.)
Study leader Kunal Bhattacharya told Broadly that the difference between male and female social relationships was "the most important thing we focused on in our research," pointing out that while the specific age at which people's social circles change may differ, "there are other things that will not change, like sex differences."
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"Women are more focused on their opposite sex partners in this period [of their mid 20s], while men maintain same-sex peer relationships and casual relationships," Bhattacharya explained. "After men and women partner off, they withdraw from these casual relationships; it happens faster for men than it happens for women. There is a decay in the number of contacts and they steadily go down in middle age, in the 40s."
"Then what you have are family relations: Men and women have to maintain these relations, but women play a more pivotal role in maintaining these relations in the family with their own children. As they age, what happens is that children have their own families and these families grow. In-laws come in. The woman plays a pivotal role, not the man."
When I asked 25-year-olds if they were enjoying the glorious friendship prime of their lives, most of them said that they had already seen their social circles diminish—though this wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
"I'm definitely at the age now where I can't really be bothered," said Izzy, a writer based in London. "You know you've got some friends who are really hard to get hold of and can be quite flaky? When I was younger, I persevered with that and now I can't really be bothered. I'm not gonna cut any friends out of my life, but I think I'm less bothered about having a huge group of friends. Obviously it's nice to see them for birthdays and events like that, but I think it's unrealistic that you're going to see them on a regular basis. I think it's better to focus on the friends you're going to see a lot."
"Maybe 'replacing' rather than 'cutting,'" said Lizzy, a digital communications manager for a non-profit, when asked if she had ever cut down her friendship circle. "Recently, a couple of very old friends were really unnecessarily bitchy and unkind to me and other friends over the pettiest of issues—it made me realize that just because a friend is old doesn't mean they are a good friend, and have made a decision to not waste time on people that aren't kind or good pals back."
And while even the straightest female friendships can sometimes be more tortured and convoluted than an episode of The L Word, a recent YouGov poll found that 12 percent of men over 18 don't have a close friend they could discuss a serious problem with.
"It's a bit of a generalization, but if we're talking about a gender split, I think women are better at maintaining friendships," Izzy pointed out. "I know some of my guy friends are a bit rubbish at being in touch. Some of my friends from school organize weekends away with a big group of guys and girls—and it's always the girls who have to organize everything."
But for anybody who's past 25 and already happily planning for a solo retirement with your two dozen cats and their brain-destroying parasitical infections, the news isn't so bad. Bhattacharya said that the cut-off age of 25 may vary from person to person, and "what we expect is that you will have a gradual withdrawal from casual relationships, simply because you have to balance work and family life. You'll have a less number of friends and focus on somewhere else.
"It may not be so fast," he added reassuringly.