The numbers are in, and they reveal that America continues to shift as a modern society. Americans now eat most of their meals alone, a new study finds, with families finding it more difficult to find time to eat together and a dramatic increase in the number of single-person households.
The NPD Group, a market research firm, reveals that a majority of meals (57%) are eaten by solo diners. Snacks have the highest percentage of lone diners (72%), followed by breakfast (61%) and lunch (55%). (Solo lunches include workers eating at their desk.) Although many families make an effort to eat dinner together, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so in light of busy soccer schedules or karate practices among kids and working late or workouts among adults. Hmmm. Would this make Ward Cleaver proud—or not? “A generation ago, the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ television family ate dinner together,” says Warren Solochek, vice-president of client development for NPD’s food service practice. “Today, that traditional eating arrangement is much harder to achieve.”
Although this was the first time NPD carried out the survey, experts say the trend of people cooking for just themselves or requesting tables for one will continue. Single-person households jumped from 17% in 2008 to 27% in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “People are marrying later in life and starting families later in life,” says Andy Brennan, a lead analyst at research firm IBISWorld. “A lot of restaurants are accommodating single diners with more bar space. There isn’t the stigma there once was to dining alone.”
As I reflected on these trends, I asked myself what factors could be contributing to these changes. In a matter of moments, I came up with a list:
- A rise in technology has fostered a social corrosion. We do life on a screen.
- More people live alone, making social contact more work after a busy day.
- An increase in activities has meant diminished family meals together.
- Social media on a screen is less taxing than face-to-face interaction.
- Crowded calendars and bigger goals create a decline in human contact.
- The expansion of media has left us lethargic, seeking entertainment over engagement.
Oh, we may not feel alone. We have our portable device in our hands as we sip our soup—surfing, texting, scrolling our contacts. It masquerades as a social device, and in a sense, it is. However, screens cannot replace what happens when we are face to face with individuals, reading facial and body language, listening as we observe, mirroring emotional tone and empathizing with the person in front of us.
No doubt, it’s important to distinguish between happily alone and lonely, says Susan Cain, co-founder of Quiet Revolution (a mission-based company to celebrate introverts) and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts. She says a lot of people look forward to time alone. “There’s a new trend of restaurants, particularly in Europe, that are designed for dining alone,” she says. While some hosts still greet solo diners with the question, “Just one?” there’s been some progress: BBC online recently featured a restaurant in Amsterdam, Eenmaal, which only has tables for one. Cain says that’s why there’s more solo than family dining restaurants. The Le Pain Quotidien restaurant chain has large tables aimed at solo diners. “One of the much unheralded pleasures of café life is the ability to be alone together,” she says.
Different Relationships in a Digital World
In light of these thoughts, however, my concern is that many of us don’t even realize we are, indeed, lonely. Our social world today enables us to be with people and still be lonely. We may not even know how to be authentic, vulnerable, and empathetic, so we opt for the less stressful route of no companionship. It’s less work. Further, even when interacting with people, it’s different now. Our culture pushes for relationships to be:
We don’t go deep, in our reading or relationships, like people once did. Too much is going on, too much information is being transmitted. We stick to the surface.
As I mentioned, we prefer screens to genuine, face-to-face conversations. Yet the interaction is artificial — we talk to real people via pixels and flat surfaces.
We’re so mobile that life-long friendships only last on Facebook or Instagram. Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. We get bored too quickly.
This sounds judgmental, but it seems we don’t want to work at relationships like we did before. As we realized texting was available, we made less phone calls.
Because our lives are crowded, we often have time for people who can do something for us. Connections are transactional: to buy, sell or exchange.
We now understand how to “unfriend” in social media; delete, stop following and log off. We quit relationships much faster than earlier generations.
I don’t believe this is how humans are wired to live. There’s great evidence for the fact that we are social creatures, hardwired to be close to one another, to work at the connections we have with those closest to us and not walk away. Tomorrow, I will demonstrate this in Part Two of this series.
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