Why Millions of Men Lose Friends in Their Twenties
Six men aged 19 to 30 talk about how they form bonds with other guys, and how those bonds can fall apart.
Illustration by Dan Evans
Men often think of themselves as lone wolves. Lone wolf being ambitious in the office. Lone wolf on Tinder. Lone wolf playing Fallout 4 alone in an apartment, eating lasagna out of the microwave carton. As we get older and life inevitably starts flinging shit at us, we might start to wonder whether there's a reason most wolves hunt in packs.
While we're typically sociable beasts during school and university, when the pressures of work start beating down, faces that were once familiar to us can start falling away, making us realize just how alone in the world we truly are.
This past November, a YouGov poll carried out by the Movember Foundation found that 12 percent of men over the age of 18 don't have a close friend they would discuss a serious life problem with. That's 2.5 million men across Britain. Over a quarter of men said they got in touch with their mates less than once a month, and 9 percent said they don't remember the last time they made contact with their friends.
This can develop into a serious problem in later life. Research by the World Health Organisation has shown that a lack of close friends has a significant impact on men's health in the long term, leaving us at risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Sarah Coghlan, head of Movember UK, tells me: "Many men we've spoken to don't actually realize how shallow their relationships have become until they face a significant challenge, such as bereavement, breakdown of a relationship, fatherhood, or loss of employment—and yet that is of course when good friends are needed most."
So what happens to our friendships as we get older? Here, six men at different stages of their lives discuss their relationships with their friends.
"I did the first year of sixth form, but I've had a rough year relationship-wise so didn't do well and left. I've been working seasonally since then. When that relationship stuff was going on I spoke about it to my friends who I went to secondary school with, rather than my new friends at college, just because I knew them better. I'm quite lucky that I'm in a social group that has about seven or eight people in—mostly other guys, but a couple of girls. We all went to secondary school together, but a few of them I've known since primary school. I'm pretty open with all of them, so would talk to them about anything. They've also come to me in the past about personal stuff. I'd rather talk to friends than family because they may be going through similar things at the time, so they can relate more. I have friends and acquaintances from work or sport, but my friends from school are tried and tested. We've been through a lot together."
"I went straight into work after school. Maybe I would have made more friends if I'd gone to uni, but the student lifestyle is a lot about getting drunk and experimenting with drugs, which I do neither of. I would have been very much an outsider because those things have never appealed to me. I have around six or seven close friends, and I also live with a bunch of new friends, which is a laugh. I work four or five days a week, so on my days off I try to see mates if they're free. Ninety percent of my friends go to hardcore gigs, so I can always find them there in the moshpit. The past three years is when I've made most of my friends. When I was 16 I had no mates. The main reason it changed is because I have become far more confident about speaking to people. I couldn't communicate with people when I was in my teens; I was too scared. These days, I have two friends I feel like I can go to for everything. They let me live with them for a month while I was looking for a place and I told them some deep shit. They're more like my family than my own."
"Most of the people I see are from work, which is a bit depressing."
"I graduated last June after staying on to do a masters. To be honest, there were only really about two people that I felt like I actually got on with at uni. The others are part of a group that I see quite often to go drinking with, but they're not exactly people to discuss life decisions with. Since I've started working this year most of the people I see are from work, which is a bit depressing. They're good people, but the only thing we have in common is working at the same place. I have about three friends I see regularly, and a few others I talk to on WhatsApp but never see in person. As I've gotten older I think I've stopped trying to be nice and friendly to people I don't actually get on with. At school I used to try to be part of loads of different groups, but now I just hang out with those three guys I know from back home, or go to effectively mandatory work socials with people with kids. I think it's a good thing, though—I've found the few people that I'll probably get on with for a long time instead of trying to maintain relationships with people that I don't really like. If I had a serious problem, I'd talk to my girlfriend about it—unless it's about her. I've got one old friend I've known since I was three that I still see a few times a year whenever he's in London. He's the one friend I'd probably still go to with that stuff."
"I've still got three or four friends from uni, but I was quite a different person then. I had more of a self-destruct button. The reason I'm not friends with more people from then is that I didn't make the sort of friends I'd want to have now. I wouldn't want to do the stupid shit we used to do. My mates from school are my closest mates, but I don't seem them as much—which is paradoxical, I guess. I see them about five weekends a year, usually at stag-dos or weddings. I know they've got my back. Some of them have been through some bad times, and after we've talked about those things I don't think there's anything we couldn't say to each other. It's hard to make time to see friends, though. I feel like weeks can be rinse-and-repeat. If your girlfriend gets one or two evenings a week, I try to do exercise two days a week, Friday is a bit of a lottery... when am I supposed to do anything else? There's no time. I had a conference call for work this evening, and that's not uncommon. So it's hard to have the time or energy to plan things with friends. It's sad. It's a bit depressing when I think about it."
"My closest friend is probably the most emotionally stunted person I know."
"I have a core group of friends from my first year of uni who I still keep in touch with, although some have moved abroad. My best mate from uni chased a girl to New Zealand, but I still manage to speak to him every day. The awkward thing about my group of friends is that one of them is my ex-girlfriend. If I try to introduce a new girl into that environment I'll pretend it's all fine until I get a barrage of shitty text messages. Other than that slight hiccup, I try to see them as much as possible. At uni, most of our downtime was as a result of horrendous hangovers caused by £2 treble deals. My first year or two after university was very much filled with withdrawal symptoms from not having these moments, but I'm OK with it now. If I have a serious problem, there are different people I'd talk to about different issues. One of my closest friends is probably the most emotionally stunted person I know, so I tend to keep away from discussing anything in depth with him. On the other hand, he's one of the funniest people I know, so I'll happily escape from my problems in his company."
"I didn't go university, but I went straight into a working environment where I met a group of people of a similar age, and I'm still in touch with a few of them. In my mid-twenties I was always out with my mates on the weekend—we'd meet up all the time. At that point, it felt like the partying would just keep going. But towards the end of my twenties that started to change. People are living their lives more individually now and building towards their careers and their future. Nobody has as much time to spend having fun. I think it's just age that has initiated that change, and I understand that. I only still see a handful of my close friends, but if I want to speak about a serious problem or deeper issues I would usually only speak to my girlfriend. I'd really like to spend more time seeing my old friends again, but nowadays I tend to find that if I'm not the one who's busy, then they will be. It's difficult to find the time."