About That Social Recession…

When public officials and pundits talk about recessions, they almost always are describing an economic downturn. But there are other kinds of recession–and there is troubling evidence that we are experiencing one that is arguably more worrisome than a bad economy.

It’s a “social recession,” and –as the Guardian has reported–political scientists and sociologists have described its contours.

Ever since a notorious chart showing that fewer people are having sex than ever before first made the rounds, there’s been increased interest in the state of America’s social health. Polling has demonstrated a marked decline in all spheres of social life, including close friendships, intimate relationships, trust, labor participation and community involvement. The continuing shift has been called the “friendship recession” or the “social recession” – and, although it will take years before this is clearly established, it was almost certainly worsened by the pandemic.

The decline comes alongside a documented rise in mental illness, diseases of despair and poor health more generally. In August 2022, the CDC announced that US life expectancy had fallen to where it was in 1996. Contrast this to western Europe, where life expectancy has largely rebounded to pre-pandemic numbers. Even before the pandemic, the years 2015-2017 saw the longest sustained decline in US life expectancy since 1915-18, when the US was grappling with the 1918 flu and the first world war.

There is plenty of debate over the causes of the phenomenon: the Internet, social media and our increasingly online lives come in for considerable criticism. Other observers  stress economic precarity and the decline of public spaces and community.

On the right, the critics indict contemporary culture, accusing the emphasis on inclusion of undermining social traditions —  especially gender norms and the longstanding “traditional” family structures that privileged (White) men and subordinated women.

Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that a growing number of people feel “lost, lonely or invisible.”

Pundits, politicians, bureaucrats and the like have generally fixated on the social recession’s potential to incubate political extremism. Entire institutes have been set up to study, monitor and surveil the internet’s radicalizing tendencies buoyed by anti-social loneliness. The new buzzword often used in this sphere is “stochastic terrorism” – meaning acts of violence indirectly motivated by messages of hate spread through mass communication – and much of this discussion has focused on the need to contain some unknown, dangerous element taking hold of the dispirited online. The goal here is not to solve a pernicious problem, but instead to pacify its most flagrant outbursts.

Getting the Wild West of the Internet under some sort of control is clearly necessary, but I would argue it isn’t sufficient.

Back in 2009, I wrote a book titled “Distrust American Style,” in which I argued (among other things) that the reason for what was even then obvious social anomie was a loss of trust in America’s social and governing institutions– and that the remedy is to make them trustworthy.

The linked article considers the evidence of growing social isolation and the influence of  our increasingly online lives, but it concludes by making an argument similar to mine:

Missing from all of this is the building block of society: trust. The past 50 years have seen America’s transformation from a high-trust to a low-trust society, accompanied by a collapse of authority across all levels: social, political and institutional. In 2022, trust dropped to a new average low – a development that has been the trend since the 1970s.

Americans do perceive that trust has diminished among the general population, according to Pew Research. The vast majority are “worried about the declining level of trust in each other”. Many also feel that they no longer recognize their own country, although that recording is probably caught up somewhat in political partisanship. The erosion of trust in the US began decades ago, after Watergate and the “crisis of confidence” during the 1970s, but it binds our current time to a more familiar past cynicism. Skepticism toward the state has evolved into more generalized distrust of society at large, constantly amplified by the internet.

Although it is absolutely true that malaise and discomfort always increase during periods of rapid social change, I’m convinced that the severity of this particular social recession is largely a result of diminished trust in all of our social institutions. It isn’t just government–its business interests dodging taxes and bribing Supreme Court justices, churches covering up molestations, sports figures doping, cable news sources spewing propaganda–the list goes on.

When people don’t know who or what they can trust, withdrawal from communal life is hardly surprising. That said, engagement in healthy communities is absolutely essential to democratic functioning–and trust is essential to engagement.

The challenge –in our MAGA and QAnon world–is figuring out how to restore that necessary trust.


  1. Lack of trust and organizational decay. Our institutions are a mess; I don’t see how they can be salvaged, considering people run them. I disagree about the “internet bogeyman.” I see the internet as the alternative, and it’s because of that everybody wants to control the content.

    Assange told us all about Google, but the government has partnered with it and let it grow. Savvy internet users who want the truth about their government must keep moving from one platform to another; the government follows. Our government is oppressive and fascistic regardless of who sits in the Whitehouse.

    The oligarchs and their MIC/Surveillance state have no interest in democratizing itself, so good luck with that project. We don’t need “studies” or “projects.”

    Trust requires an open and honest government. We are going in the opposite direction because the oligarchs are closing down society.

  2. Social relationship is a matter of scale and under reported. When you have it, no one feels need to call Pew Research and say: “Hey!” It cannot be disregarded because it fails to rise in the filter of research and still demonstrate resilience to modern society inundated by larger scale observation. That being said, I agree with Sheila’s point there is a concerted initiative to effect a social malaise through control of media. Family remains a basic fundamental unit of society around the world. There is no sacred canopy protecting the role of family, but I see and witness family cohesion that cross all lines of division in political bandwidth who would readily say there is no social recession in our home much less our neighborhood. It is a matter of scale and what evidence you choose to examine.

  3. I’m with the internet bogeyman but only as a secondary trust killer. I think the primary trust killer is a reaction to corruption in high places and especially in politics and religion, though corruption is nothing new in either such area. Perhaps the difference between then and now is that we the peasants are better informed of such chicanery than we once were, and hence the social decay.

  4. It seems to me that the decline in trust goes back to the 1960’s when important people were killed by “a lone crazed gunman”. JFK, RFK, MLK as well as key Black leaders all went away. I recall NO Right wing Republicans being killed in this fashion. And of course there was Vietnam. Lies and lies and death and destruction — for what? And Gulf War I, and Gulf War II – Lies and lies and death and destruction — for what? Now we have a US Senate that gets held hostage by ONE nut job after another. A Supreme court that seems to be for sale to the highest bidder. A Supreme court that was filled by some odd methods — with some odd judges. I think it will take a LOT to restore full trust.

  5. Don’t even begin to think we can restore full trust in anything. We’ve never had it. I am always skeptical of things that don’t seem quite right. My research usually tells me I’m correct. Whatever it is either didn’t happen, or happened very differently from the tale I read or was told. These days, we have one political party that lies constantly and one that sometimes lies. I personally prefer the latter. What I see as the most important item in staving off depression or anxiety is human contact. I don’t care about most peoples’ political positions. More often than not, where I live, most people oppose mine. That doesn’t keep me from seeing their humanity.

  6. I agree (mostly) with Todd’s analysis regarding the oligarchs. Our current level of dystopia is rapidly approaching a full “1984 Meets Ayn Rand” scenario with the fabulously corrupt GOP doing its best/worst to see to it that a fascist dictatorship overturns our Constitution. Why? The illusion that lots of money will solve everything for those in power.

    The oligarchs give not a single damn about the lives and welfare of those who make them rich. It’s that delicious irony that will lead to the next chapter on our upheaval of the post-WW II times. Looking at all the wars patmcc mentioned, they were all based on lies. Those lies were good for the arms industries. War is good for business and business does very well.

    Nothing else matters. I’m glad I’m old.

  7. patmcc lists the most decisive points leading to the current social and political recession which will more than likely lead to some unavoidable level of economic recession. We simply didn’t recognize Trump’s revolution as such by using dissent against democracy and Rule of Law as being a bona fide Revolution as it was between two political parties; it is now a Cold Civil War. Revolution IS dissent and we must find grounds for our own Revolution to end the fundamental power wielded by Trump and his MAGAs, White Nationalists and the ruling Freedom Caucus in the House.

    The ongoing mass shootings are not considered assassinations but are systematically using the heavily armed White Nationalists to kill off en masse those who support democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution of the UNITED States of America. The current slim Republican majority in the House is proving over and over the truth of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous words, “A House divided against itself cannot stand.” We are watching the crumbling of our U.S. House of Representatives using systemic racism, sexism and antisemitism to end America; the destruction of the House will lead to the destruction of our nation which will be followed by global destruction unless we end it by voting the dissenting Republicans who are destroying all that America has stood for for 247 years in the 2023 and 2024 elections.

    “The challenge –in our MAGA and QAnon world–is figuring out how to restore that necessary trust.”

  8. This is the singular root cause of why democracy is cratering nearly everywhere. It is NOT new news. Multiple researchers/prophets have told us: “Amusing Ourselves to Death”(1985), “Bowling Alone” (2000), “iGen” (2017). And the research clearly shows that it is getting worse with each coming generation. It is, if you look hard, a “death spiral”. The new “feeders” – AI, gamification, legalizing online betting on everything, legalizing weed/psychedelic drugs, etc. IVGIO

  9. The pandemic just reinforced social distrust as we saw the disdain with which so many of our neighbors demonstrated how little they cared for the most vulnerable among us. The refusal to comply with even the least intrusive requests to protect others showed us who they were. So quote Ms. Angelo, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

    Why would you trust someone who clearly holds you in complete disregard, so much so that they would risk your life for their convenience?

    Watching what has been happening since the 80s and before, it seems to be a repeat of the years after Reconstruction. The constant erosion of agency for POC didn’t happen all at once. The incremental pace of loss not only constrained POC, Jews, Catholics, Indigenous, Asians and LGBTQI, but impacted the social trust in the White power structure as well. Woe to those in the white community who showed the least deviation from the strict social conventions among the power structure.

    Little by little equal treatment before the law was eaten away on the fringes until it took huge bites in lynchings, the re-emergence of the KKK, deadly riots against whole communities of “others”.

    IMO, that is what we are seeing now. That same incremental loss is happening again, with the no intent to hide the goal of complete dominance of Christofascists controlled by the Oligarchs’ billions. Is there any doubt as to why the powerful want to write the history taught to our children? Ignorance of the past almost insures the repeat of terrible outcomes.

  10. Gerald is onto something with his comment. We are better informed today than in any time in the past. In fact, I would say we are too informed.
    Every day we awaken to the “latest news” from all corners of the world. Being NEWS it is mostly bad. Hundreds drown in the seas as they try to migrate to another country. Earthquakes, floods, fires, mass shootings, drive by shootings, war, bombings… you name it. Daily! Endlessly. To what end? Add to all of it are the reports that our institutions are corrupt to the core. .. the very institutions that are suppose to right the wrongs, bring about justice and fair play, and solve the big problems. No wonder the younger generation is so anxious and depressed. What future do they see for themselves?
    Like Vernon, I am glad I am old.

  11. The fundamental problem is out of control capitalism. The new United States of America contained the seeds of its own destruction, or perhaps you could say the strength of its economic results insulated it against maturation as a society. Either way, greed over love is what America represents to people around the world and of course especially to the majority of Americans, who know very well that this whole society exists to sell them something (at best) or steal from them (more likely).

    The prioritization of wealth over education will be the end of us.

  12. Some ebb and flow notwithstanding, I’m not convinced that our institutions are any less trustworthy than they ever were. Certainly those involved should act with integrity. But, on the local level, I’ve seen baseless accusations — borne of personal grievance — get elevated well beyond anything reasonable with an accompanying erosion of trust.

    I’m not sure what, if anything, we can do with respect to such a dynamic. My hope is that the body politic develops a sort of immunity to conspiracy-mongering. I think the Internet and social media were a new vector of infection for a naive population.

  13. Todd is slinking toward conspiracy theory “they” are trying to control the Internet. Absolutely YES. The Internet seems to be at the root of sowing disinformation and distrust. The barriers to being published are so low that anyone can suddenly have the same voice as our traditional trusted voices. There is no conspiracy to silence one side or the other. There is only a concerted effort to stop harmful disinformation. While you may firmly believe the economy is in a recession, or the election was stolen, or vaccines don’t work, science and facts don’t back up those assertions, and your claims to contrary shouldn’t give you the same voice.

    In addition the way social media works to grab your attention is through emotional manipulation. This means working to create fear or some other visceral response that makes you click and share. It includes a feedback loop to show you how many likes or followers you get, so the more gut wrenching the reaction, the more you “win”.

    This coupled with a political party that seems to be actively sabotaging government and civil rights to “win” at any cost puts us a truly dangerous moment in history.

    Is there any wonder that people are withdrawing from such a toxic mix of social interactions?

  14. Where will “trust” come from? Religion – fewer believers and service attenders. Parents – each generation is more “do your own thing” parenting. Education – no critical thinking taught, no literacy (visual, data, media) taught. Where, folks?

  15. The Internet, via the media, social options, E-mail and blogs such as where we are here each day; also Facebook provides options and sources to research via Google with sites such as Wikipedia to go outside the box for information. It is a good news/bad news system which has ended our privacy and opened routes to all phases of our lives. It is up to us to accept or seek facts vs. lies and alternate facts to make the system work; the system that cannot work is the newspaper shut down and takeover by the right-wing party corporations such as Gannett. The loss of our daily newspapers in many major cities and towns is one of the greatest losses with no apparent restoration of that source in sight. A form of “Social Recession” we were not prepared to see happen. I still miss my morning newspaper but do not miss the Indianapolis Star; a part of my daily life which began when I was a child and aware of my parents and grandparents decades of subscriptions which I carried into my adulthood.

  16. We appear to have come out of WWII feeling good about ourselves and our country. Then came the “RedScare,”
    led by that McCarthy, for whom Nixon (“Tricky Dick,” Pres. Eisenhower called him)worked…Mr.Paranoid with his
    “enemy list,” and Watergate. St. Reagan, also a behind the scenes traitor like Nixon, fed social dissonance as he lied
    his way through his act as president, feeding the already wealthy, to whom he said “You can have it all.” He was
    certainly not talking to the already “have nots.”
    All the above has to have fed into the malaise of various portions of the country. Then came the obviously stolen elections
    of Mr. Hanging Chads, and TFG , along with severe gerrymandering, and the general public learned that they mattered very
    little. TFG spoke to the distrust, and fear, and empowered the acting out of it all.
    What presidents say, or aver, has quite a large impact on the consciousness of the public, even if it spreads out of current
    awareness. The character of the president sets the scene.

  17. Mitch – think you meant to write “What presidents say, on average, has quite a large impact on the consciousness of the public, even if it spreads out of current
    awareness.” Respectfully disagree. If what President The Duck said did that, he wouldn’t be running again. Regarding Biden, the public distrusts, is bored by or is turned off to all politics these days.

  18. My immediate thought was to the innocents that were killed when they turned up on the wrong doorstep. My younger self climbed over freeway fences to ask to use a phone. The new me won’t even ask about a flower variety that catches my eye in someone’s garden. That is certainly a loss of trust on my part.

    When the government won’t regulate huge corporations like Google and Meta because they are located in one’s district or can make huge donations, we have no protections, just as the Republicans who want an unregulated market would like. Another example, transgender patients’ records are confiscated by the attorney general in Tennessee, where promised secrecy is breached. These both cause a loss of trust in our institutions.

    In the past I read books and articles on how to rebuild the trust and nothing seems to ultimately work. But I am encouraged by polling that implies the the country’s majority believes as I do; sadly our system gives too much power to the fringes.

  19. Doug. I love your post, especially the second paragraph. Very insightful.

  20. On the front page of the Indpls Star yesterday was an article headlined “Lawmakers often vote on bills tied to business interests” highlighting fossil fuel interests and the 2021 wetlands bill benefiting home builders. Legislators are required to file statements of economic interest on bills that they have connections with those that benefit. There were over 100 filed between 2019 and 2022 and this brings questions of conflict of interest.
    Professor Kennedy was interviewed for the article and talked about how the lack of trust erodes democracy. She said there are few consequences for Ind. legislators with these possible conflicts as long as they disclose them on the required form. Shedding light on these dealings and voting against them are our only recourses as Indiana citizens.
    On the national level I don’t think trust will begin to be restored until DJT is held responsible for his crimes while he was POTUS and after. Jamie Raskin has referred to DJT as ” a continuous crime wave”! I can’t believe the republican party is allowing him to run. It would be reassuring to see the Justice department convict him and restore the trust in the power of the law.

  21. Watergate was a big factor, but even worse was Ford’s 1974 full and unconditional pardon of Nixon for any crimes that he might have committed against the United States as president.

    No indictment, no trial, no witnesses or evidence in a public courtroom, no jury, no accountability.

    Total corruption.

  22. Losing trust in our institutions is partly to blame for the social recession. But I think it’s only one of many crises causing our collective depression: life-destroying climate crisis, rampant gun violence, growing economic inequality and underregulated capitalism, declining democracy and rising autocracy, and increasing hatred toward “different” (ie non-white, non-“Christian”, non-straight) people, a trend that existed before 2016 but Trump made visible and acceptable

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