In the summer of 2011, five friends and I moved from our university halls into a building formerly known as the Jack Beard's Pub. Despite the relative squalor (friendly piece of advice: if you're ever suffering from an infestation of rats, don't google how quickly they reach sexual maturity and can start breeding, because you will never fucking sleep again) the quality of the company made living there more than bearable.
Early on, we found a combo TV/VHS player on the street and brought it back. The only video we had, for some reason, was Space Jam, and for weeks we huddled together and repeatedly watched that film, sometimes on consecutive nights. Half the guys were music students and would regularly throw gigs in what used to be the pub itself, which, insufferable as that makes us sound, was a lot of fun. Of course, London being London, the pub was razed a couple of years later to make way for a set of extortionately priced flats, but the memories remain – and so should, in theory, the bonds between us.
At least, that's what we hoped. But now we're in our mid-twenties, an age range that actual science has shown is bad for friendships, with a study finding that people continue to make friends through their early twenties, but then rapidly begin to lose contact with them all once they turn 25. Researchers found that an average 25-year-old man maintains contact with 19 different people. By the time they're 39, that number has dropped to 12, and that figure often includes their partner and children. For a 25-year-old woman, the average is 17.5 people, dropping to 15 by the age of 39.
I, apparently, am reaching the milestone of friend loss, and while it's my disposition to question the legitimacy of these made-for-the-Mail studies, I am also forced to confront the fact that I have barely spoken to my "best mates" in quite some time. I wondered why we'd grown apart and whether it's true that my number of friendships is on an irreversible downward trend. So I decided to reach out to them and see what they're up to these days – and what, if anything, we can learn about friendships and growing apart as we age.
Knowing that our memories become distorted as time passes, one of the main things I was curious to find out was how close the others considered our group to be. "Pretty damn close," says Tim, a performing musician and teacher.
"We were obviously very different people, but the first living experience away from home, you get a close bond with the people you live with," adds Cameron, who's now working for an asset management firm, a job I have long since given up pretending to understand, to both of our relief.
Matt, who studied music and now works in a saxophone shop in central London, recalls a night back in halls when I cooked us a curry so hot we immediately retired to the shower block – three cubicles side by side, with a gap at the top so you could hear the person next to you – to drink beer and listen to Bruce Springsteen while we cooled down. In retrospect, that had to have been one of the most extraordinarily masculine yet deeply intimate experiences of my life. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, it's a reminder of a bond whose strength I have rarely repeated. In fact, when I talk to all of these guys, it's clear we share at least a handful of fond memories from that time. So what happened?
Adulthood certainly played its part. They all moved back to various towns in England, while I moved to Toronto a year ago, which has severely limited my ability to see any of them. Work stands in the way too for musicians like Tim and Aviv; the often unstable, sporadic nature of their careers means they don't operate on a normal nine to five schedule. Finding a time everyone's free to catch up is difficult. One of the major themes that crops up talking to all of them is that much of their social lives now come off the back of their jobs.
"With all the friends I have made through work, when the day ends it's so easy to get that group of people and move them to the pub," says Matt. "I don't have to think about who to see."
Of course, technology was supposed to put an end to this friendship drift; Facebook is supposed to allow us to stay in touch with every friend we've ever made forever. But the fact that we have online lists of all our friends also allows us to be complacent – a couple of likes here, a cry-laugh emoji there, and you're done. At the risk of sounding like every middle-aged person since Zuckerberg began, maybe social media has led to a more superficial idea of friendships. "I think, in some cases, it's very easy to keep track of friends passively online without ever actually reaching out to connect with them on a personal basis," says Sean.
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For what it's worth, some of my best friendships have flourished via social media (and particularly IM functions), so perhaps the issue is less about the medium and more about taking the time to reach out to someone as an individual rather than broadcast brief updates to the world. Indeed, as someone who is trying to build a career out of encouraging greater emotional honesty in men, you might be inclined to call me a hypocrite for not taking more steps to keep the lines of conversation open.
"I think I used to make a lot more of an effort with you than the other way round, but then when you moved abroad we both gave up," says Tim. "But that's natural, I think. Staying in touch is a very different thing when it's just to hear what you're up to. It seems less important."
Toby Young recently wrote a column about the "myth" of friendship after several of his good mates failed to show up for his stag party. This is objectively funny, because it's Toby Young, but also it serves as a reminder that things could be a lot worse if you have a few close friends who you can actually rely on.
Although it forced me to confront some feelings of guilt on my part for not making enough effort, reaching out to my old housemates for the purposes of quote-unquote journalism allowed me to ask some relatively intimate questions. In return, I was reminded of why these friendships existed in the first place. It's easy to drift apart and convince yourself it's just a natural progression that comes with getting older, but actually taking the time to just say "Hey, what's up?" can resurrect friendships you'd almost written off. I recommend everyone gives it a go.
So perhaps we don't start losing friends in our mid-twenties; we just conduct them in a different capacity.
"I have a very strong feeling that if we were to meet up tomorrow it would be like picking up where we left off," says Matt. "I think the best of my friendships have always happened without much effort, and that's exactly where ours got to very quickly. When you get to that point and life gets in the way, the many great memories you have are enough to go on until you next pick up the friendship."
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