The end of neighbours

How our increasingly closed-off lives are poisoning our politics and endangering our health

Photo illustration by Levi Nicholson

Photo illustration by Levi Nicholson

It’s a new day in the neighbourhood all across the Western world. More than 30 per cent of Canadians now say they feel disconnected from their neighbours, while half of Americans admit they don’t know the names of theirs. An Australian sociologist investigating community responses in the wake of the 2011 floods in Queensland found relations in “a precarious balance”; neighbours were hesitant to intrude even in emergencies—leading the scholar to conclude that “we are less likely than ever to know” our neighbours. Quite right, too: A recent poll of 2,000 Britons found a third declaring they couldn’t pick their near neighbours out of a police lineup.

Yet it’s hardly surprising, given how lengthy working days, long commutes and having both parents in the labour force have combined with the way we raise our children to create suburban neighbourhoods that are empty more than half the day, with scarcely a neighbour to encounter, let alone recognize, trust or befriend. But, however powerful the economic and social forces behind the disappearing neighbour—and however positive many of its results—according to reams of new research, the transformation is also poisoning our politics and, quite literally, killing us.

Two new books, The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc Dunkelman, and Susan Pinker’s forthcoming The Village Effect, mine the data and sound loud warnings. The health aspects are alarming enough for Pinker, a Montreal-based developmental psychologist, to have changed her own habits of a lifetime. She argues that humans need face-to-face contact, as they need air and water. We have evolved for it, to the extent that those surrounded by a tight-knit group of friends who regularly gather to eat—and, crucially, gossip—live an average of 15 years longer than loners. Quality face-to-face contact is essential for a social species, Pinker writes, citing research that shows it fortifies immune systems, calibrates hormones and increases chances of surviving heart attacks, strokes, AIDS and cancer. “People with the most integrated social lives—overlapping relationships among friends, family, sports and other recreational or religious pursuits—have the best prognoses,” with the most life-threatening diseases. It’s true even with dementia: A 2004 Swedish study found its lowest prevalence among those with the most extensive social networks.

In response, rather than spend evenings at home reading or working, Pinker now swims on a team (group exercise providing “more bang for her buck”) and makes a point of attending more social events. And, crucially, she makes an effort to keep her social circle as wide as possible, consciously replacing friends and neighbours who fade away over time. Bear in mind, Pinker warns, that no matter how much you love and trust your spouse, if he or she is your only confidant—as about 10 per cent of American survey respondents indicate—then you are one person away from no one at all. “Immunologically speaking, you’re almost naked.”


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What could be called our social immune system, according to Dunkelman, is also not as robust as it was. The American researcher notes how his country was always organized from the bottom up, from township (or neighbourhood) to county to state to federation. But the moderating effects that mixing with neighbours of differing opinions once inspired, much like the health benefits born of daily contact with others, are crumbling, leading to inexorably more polarized politics.

“Middle ring” is what Dunkelman calls our neighbourly relationships, in contrast to the inner ring of family and close friends and the ever-expanding outer-ring relationships fostered by the digital age. And the centre is not holding, says Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University in Providence, R.I., in an interview. “Middle-ring relationships take persistence and grit, because we don’t always like our neighbours—it’s not a relationship by choice—and, now that we don’t have to approach them in a ‘yes, we disagree but we have to keep talking’ spirit, and we don’t even run into them while shopping and the like, we drift.” We grab what easy commonalities we can, he adds: In a world of multiple media where the top-ranked TV show is watched by less than 10 per cent of the population (as opposed to more than a third 50 years ago), pro sports are more culturally significant than ever—one of the few talking points between neighbours. International contests—a soccer World Cup match, or Canada in an Olympic gold medal hockey game—can give a feeling of community to an entire nation with ever fewer such talking points.

Dunkelman markedly extends what the Australian study of flooded Queenslanders found. We may say we are disturbed by the fact that we no longer know our neighbours, but, to a largely unspoken extent, distance from the hard work of getting along with them is precisely what we want. Hell is other people, claimed Jean-Paul Sartre, and contemporary Westerners agree with him. We have long worked to separate ourselves from relationships and social norms that restrict us. And our pursuit of autonomy and privacy is often for good reason. Compare the lives of ethnic and sexual minorities now and two generations ago. Whether it is born of genuine tolerance or simple indifference, we are far more open-minded about who lives next door, not that we often talk with them or—as the British poll makes starkly plain—even recognize them.

Increasingly, we live alone, even while maintaining vibrant social networks with like-minded souls, especially online. Solo households, meaning there is no constricting “other” even within the home, are the fastest-growing home segment in Canada now. The paraphernalia of living alone are taking an ever larger market share in the modern world. Sales of single-serving cookware, including one-cup teapots, have grown by 140 per cent in Britain over the last generation. And, while eerily quiet subdivisions make social commentators uneasy, condominium complexes, where neighbours rub shoulders with each other more often, make residents uneasy, since they feature as much conflict as harmony.



For decades, Americans and Canadians have been steadily less likely to vote, to play bridge, to volunteer, to invite people over for dinner, to join parent-teacher groups or local organizations the way previous generations did—from the Rotary Club to bowling leagues. Family remains strong, possibly because, in the solo age, even very close relatives are not living under one roof. Between the mid-1990s and 2008, the percentage of Americans who reported eating at least once a month with relatives with whom they didn’t live rose from 52 to 59. Over a longer period (1974 to 2008), the percentage who spent an evening socializing with neighbours tumbled from 44 to 31, while the percentage who never did so rose from 20 to 30. The evolving modern definition of a good neighbour is no longer someone who is part of your life, someone you chat with over the fence, a reliable shoulder in good times and bad, but someone who doesn’t bother you, either in your enjoyment of your home or by threatening its property value.

Children’s lives are even more transformed than adults’. Driven equally by fears for their safety and the participation of both parents in the workforce, we schedule and supervise kids within an inch of their lives. In a situation well past a Malcolm Gladwell tipping point, parents contemplating not signing their child up for an expensive two-week summer camp have to reckon with the fact that the child will almost surely have no one to play with, and no friendly neighbour to keep an eye on her—prime contributors to the empty neighbourhood. (In contrast to the paid activities for kids during working hours, the older volunteer-run evening and weekends sports leagues—which bring together parents with nothing in common but children and postal codes—are among the last of the old intra-neighbourhood building blocks.)

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Pinker and Dunkelman agree that the Internet, the usual suspect in contemporary social upheaval, is not the root cause of a development that began to take shape when cars allowed a separation between work and home. The digital era does allow more autonomy and less uncomfortable jostling with others in everything from online shopping to college, where students needn’t leave their dorm rooms to take part in a MOOC (a massive open online course). The explosion in smartphone technology and ownership has accelerated the trend. But the Internet is only answering demand and nudging us further along a path we were already following.

Yet neither is the Internet the saviour that will refashion a revolutionary situation into something familiar. Our new capacity to reach out to the ends of the Earth, in fact, is primarily lavished on those already close: Research shows that family and friends receive the bulk of our personal emails and texts. Our limited time and attention is dividing between those dearest to us and those who think like us, the latter via online relationships, where the link—whether it’s environmental activism or hockey-card collecting—is often one-dimensional. Web visionaries may predict a future where the size of our digital networks will pull users out of their closed circles. But that idea, argue Dunkelman and Pinker, runs up against the brick wall of “Dunbar’s number.”

In the 1990s, Oxford primatologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar initiated the social brain hypothesis, the idea that humans developed their large brains to cope, not with predators or competitor species, but with themselves. All higher primates spend a good half of their time keeping tabs on such key survival data as who is ascendant and who is sleeping with whom.

So how big a network can we handle? About 150, calculated Dunbar. It’s a number that reverberates in human history: the approximate size of modern hunter-gatherer bands and agricultural villages from Neolithic times until the present, including contemporary Amish settlements; the size of effective military units; the number of employees a company can manage without rigid hierarchies; even the number of Christmas-card recipients on a typical list. What it means today, says Dunkelman, “is that our capacity to reach out may be infinite, but our capacity to make something meaningful of it is not; we only have a certain-sized bucket of social capital, a limited number of cognitive slots.”

Nor are the slots truly engaged by digital contact, Pinker points out, citing a Dutch study indicating that online contacts did not translate into feelings of closeness. Formerly in-person relationships moved online can dwindle to nothing in as little as 18 months, while connections buttressed both electronically and in the flesh tighten. In Pinker’s opinion, our propensity to wrongly believe that online relationships effectively replace in-person ones is playing out disastrously in education. The MOOCs that allow students to play hermit in their dorm rooms are exploding in popularity, an apparently cheap way to deliver quality education to the poor and disadvantaged. Yet, while some MOOCs enrol hundreds of thousands, an average of 90 per cent drop out, citing a lack of opportunity for words of encouragement or personal evaluation. Meanwhile, parents who can afford it, including the chief technology officer at eBay, place their children in low-tech but teacher-rich private schools. (In China, according to the Huffington Post, parents who want their kindergartner to receive hugs from their teachers pay a monthly fee.)

The way distance erodes real emotional intimacy perhaps explains why, in surveys cited by both authors, North Americans report slightly more frequent contact with their closest family and friends than in past years, but also record that the average number of their confidants had dropped from three in 1985 to two in 2004. The number of Americans with no confidants at all has shot up from eight to 23 per cent, in some surveys.

The decline of the old middle-ranking organizations has its upside, Dunkelman cheerfully allows—“the Kiwanis and the Ku Klux Klan are both hurting for members”—and it doesn’t mean contemporary citizens are not joining together in novel ways. Instead of the old local organizations, we are now exercising what University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman has called “networked individualization,” that is, in Dunkelman’s terminology, establishing “outer-ring” links. He thinks the Tea Party and Occupy, the two most prominent political uprisings in recent American history, are both outer-ring, with long-distance memberships linked by a single common cause and, thus, impossible before the Internet. But these new formations, so unlike the old local political networks marked by bald-faced horse-trading—back me on the school tax and I’ll support you on downtown improvement—are, Dunkelman thinks, at the root of his country’s political deadlock.

“People point at gerrymandering, money, special interests, hyperpartisanship—but that’s to mistake correlation for causation,” he says. “We are now more insular and more ignorant of the other guy’s thinking. There is greater mutual ignorance than a generation ago between people who live in close proximity. When there’s no habit of compromise, then the very idea of your Congressman reaching across the aisle is apostasy. The politicians in Washington who won’t do that are actually responding to their constituents’ wishes.”

Politicians need to scramble to get in front of a polarized electorate, because of how far Americans have gone down the road some sociologists call the “big sort.” Although they live in ever-smaller individual units, Americans are settling themselves in mono-neighbourhoods, homogenized not by ethnicity but by income, lifestyle and, above all, attitude. (The latter often trumps income: In New York Times columnist David Brooks’s apt summary, a Democratic Washington-area dweller asked to sell her $750,000 home in a party-friendly suburb and move to an equally expensive home in a Republican neighbourhood would react as if she had been requested to mount a gun rack in her SUV and “shove chewing tobacco in her children’s mouths.”)

The growing homogeneity of electoral districts can be tracked over time. Some 30 per cent of the senators and representatives elected with president Jimmy Carter in 1976 called themselves moderate (the rest were “strong” conservatives or liberals); by 2006, self-described moderates topped out at eight per cent. In 2012, Democrats and Republicans were so dominant in their different areas of the nation that half of state legislatures were subject to one-party rule through two-thirds majorities—far more than ever before. Perhaps the only political situation worse than having no idea of your neighbours’ thinking, runs Dunkelman’s logic, is having contact, however limited, only with neighbours who act as an echo chamber, reinforcing your own views.

In Canada, the kind of “big-sort” us-vs.-them politics Dunkelman sees across his nation is visible largely in major cities, especially Toronto. There, residential self-selection has been growing for years: A 2006 study by a University of Toronto geographer noted that the preponderance of Toronto’s leftist politicians chose to live downtown, while the opposite was true of right-wingers. The result has been a growing disconnect between suburbs and central city that Rob Ford rode to the mayor’s office in 2010; simmering anti-downtown-elite anger in the older suburbs supplies what support he still maintains. Canadian federal and provincial politicians don’t have the same deep urban divides within arm’s reach, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to build virtual mono-communities via the Internet. The older methods of retail politics, the door-to-door campaigns (which find fewer and fewer people at home) and town hall rallies (where voters would be exposed to neighbours with different views) are giving way to building up email lists of likely supporters, virtual town hall meetings without dissenting voices, and the kind of partisan, polarized messaging that keeps core voters—the party base—satisfied and willing to continue financial and electoral support.

It’s a new neighbourhood, all right: less physical, less tied to place, smaller and more congenial to those on the inside, more suspicious and unyielding to those outside. What Dunkelman and Pinker want readers and policy-makers to recognize is that downside: What brings us closer to people halfway around the world also makes strangers of those next door. We willingly abandoned the bad, chafing aspect of our old neighbourly ties; we have to somehow learn to maintain the good habits of compromise and personal interaction they also gave us.

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