Is it harder to make friends when you’re older?

By Lauren Keenan

An old friend of mine lamented recently how hard it is to make new friends nowadays. She’s lovely, so lack of new friends can’t be put down to her being a heinously bitchy Alpha-witch or the like. She meets plenty of people to chat to, and maybe even to become ‘friends’ on Facebook with. But, as for making real friends, it seems it’s harder now than ever before.

This conversation had me wondering: is it harder to make friends now? It certainly seems that way. I’ve met a number of women in recent years that I’ve gotten on really well with, and thought, “If we’d been at university or school together, we would have been friends”. Yet, we never seem to get further than swapping numbers and agreeing to have coffee at some indeterminate point in the future. Regardless of how well you seem to get on with someone while seeing them at drop-off, it’s a big jump from “How’s little Bob doing at school?” to “I have these problems and really want to talk about it over wine and ice cream”. A jump that, for people like my friend, is almost impossible to make.

So, why could this be? My oldest friend and I bonded over a discussion about an Enid Blyton book. It was pretty easy: “I like that book too. Let’s be friends!” Friendships from high school were cemented over sitting together in class, and talking about teachers/assignments/boys in our class. At university, my best friends and I either lived in the same hall of residence or took the same course, and we bonded over essays, exams and the sort of things that were hilarious when we were 20 and it was after midnight but are a bit cringey now. Work friendships evolved during lunch-breaks and work drinks, and friendships with other mums developed after attending structured groups.

When I think back to how I became friends with all of these people, the common denominator is spending bucket-loads of time with them. Hours and hours and hours. And not just that, hours and hours and hours where you don’t have to have that awkward “Let’s meet up sometime”, “Sure, I’m free three Mondays from now between 2 – 4 pm” conversation to see each other again. We just turned up to school, class, work or parties and saw each other there, until we knew each other a bit better.

Apparently, we became friends due to meeting the three criteria that sociologists pin point as being important for making close friends: proximity, repeated unplanned interaction, and a setting that makes people comfortable to let their guard down. All criteria that are so much harder to meet when you’re older.

Between juggling work and childcare and spending time with your other half, most people also simply don’t have the time to get to know someone in the same way they did when they were younger. With old friends, you don’t need to see them all the time to feel close. But, that’s because of all of the hours you spent together in the first place. If you aren’t even friends yet, it’s hardly going to progress beyond the superficial. Instead of talking about your feelings over ice-cream, you’ll only continue to say “Let’s do coffee sometime”, all in the knowledge that it might never happen.

For most people, the only place they spend enough time to become friends with new people is work, and friendships are less likely to get off the ground in the workplace as people get more senior and the line between ‘friend’ and ‘colleague’ is more firmly drawn. As we get older, people also become more careful about maintaining a professional persona and fearful of being a subject of gossip. I have friends at work and they are great, but it took much longer to become mates than it did in my first job when I was young, single and less concerned about being ‘professional’.  That’s my fault as much as anyone’s: work drinks were held once a month, but I only went once during my first eighteen months as I had to get the kids from daycare. I only made friends once I consciously dropped my guard and rearranged my hours.

I also think that many people have a better idea of who they want to be friends with as they get older. If you don’t feel like you see your old friends often enough as it is, it’s harder to make space for someone you don’t really know, especially if your world-view is different. One old friend and I have an unspoken agreement never to talk politics after a series of heated discussions a decade ago. We can’t agree on anything. I don’t mind, given we’ve been friends for over 15 years. But, if we met now, I don’t think we’d be friends at all. I don’t think either of us would be able to overlook the fact that we actually, on the face of it, have nothing in common. To be honest, we probably wouldn’t have even become friends in the first place if we hadn’t spent so many unplanned hours together at university. And that would have been a real pity.

So, is it harder to make friends now? Of course, some people would say no. There are some people that could be stranded on a desert island with nothing but a one-legged parrot and still find a best friend. For some people like my friend, though, I think it is much harder than it used to be. Hopefully, she can at least be reassured by the idea that it’s not about her. I think that for many people it is harder to make friends when you’re older. Based on my son’s experience, the only thing you need to have in common with someone to be friends is to be a similar age and, in the case of the last party we went to, the inclination to put a plastic plate on your head while yelling “Aaaaa!”  It’s a shame that the older we get, the more complicated it becomes.

Lauren is a Wellington mother of two. She blogs at Modern Mothercraft, where she applies a 1945 handbook on motherhood to parenting in the modern day, as well as writing about other topical issues.

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