Why It's So Hard To Make Friends After University (And What To Do About It)

When was the last time you made a new friend? Not just a new acquaintance or buddy at work, but someone really close — the kind of person you would call in an emergency? If you're "old" like me (past the age of 30), you might notice it's harder than ever to make those kinds of lifelong friends. Here's why that is, and why that might not be such a bad thing.

The Usual Suspects: Work, Family, So Little Time

We all know the obvious reasons friendship-making comes to a halt when we get older. We work 50-hour workweeks, maybe get married and have kids, take on more responsibilities, and otherwise have less time than ever for anything else. In a study conducted by Real Simple and the Families Work Institute, the majority of women between the ages of 25 and 54 reported having less than 90 minutes of free time a day, with 29 per cent having less than 45 minutes of free time. That's not even enough time to watch an episode of Game of Thrones, much less make new friends.

In a popular article in the New York Times last year, Alex Williams tackled this midlife friend crisis, saying:

As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.

No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.

Over the years since graduating from university, I've met lots of people at work, in my neighbourhood and at parent-teacher events. Most of them I get along with great and have traded phone numbers with some for plans to someday get together. They never pan out. It seems there's an invisible barrier to getting close enough to become deep friends, because it's hard enough to stay in touch with the close friends I already have (who I've known since high school), let alone test out and try to build a close relationship with someone new.

Williams writes:

In studies of peer groups, Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford centre on Longevity in California, observed that people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.

Basically, she suggests, this is because people have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now.

Making Friends Is No Longer a Survival Requirement

The other thing is that making friends when we're younger, while maybe not always easy, was somewhat of a necessity. From the time we're in kindergarten to when we graduate from university, friendship-making is such an important part of our social and personal development, it's almost not even optional. We need to make friends to find out who we are, where we fit in with our peers, how to navigate social situations and which people will help us with the rough parts of growing into a person (things like dealing with class bullies or confusing relationships).

Of course, we never thought about that when we made friends in school. We were indiscriminate, bonding with friends almost arbitrarily. (You sit next to me for hours in a boring chem class? Also hate a certain teacher or group of kids at school? BFFs!)

After spending years as an adult living in the real world though, we no longer need new friends to figure out how to walk peer-pressure-filled tightropes or to develop a better grasp of ourselves as individuals. And things like pure circumstance are less likely to trigger strong bonds. As comedian Louis C. K. once said in stand-up:

I spend whole days with people, I'm like, "I never would have hung out with you. I didn't choose you. Our children chose each other based on no criteria by the way. They're the same size. They don't care who they make me hang out with."

What You Can Do About It

For people who are looking to make new friends — maybe after moving to a new city, changing jobs, or simply drifting apart from old friends — it can be especially challenging. Everyone's so busy and we're less likely to have the three things sociologists consider necessary to making close friends: close proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting where people let their guards down and confide in each other (like university).

Does this mean once you're past 30 you should give up all hope of making a true new friend? Of course not.

Tracy Moore, likening friendship to a conveyor belt, writes on our sister site Jezebel that maybe we just need to change our attitude towards friendship:

Maybe you're in a new city with unknown conveyer belts; maybe your old friends are heinous jackanapes you have no idea why you just hung out with for the last decade. Either way, you have to think of making friends at this age in this world with this head as a different game.

And, yes, actually go out there and socialise with people who have similar interests. Here are a few examples from around the Lifehacker crew:

  • Use services like Meetup.com, which hosts outings for everything from outdoor hiking to poetry readings to kid dance parties. Whitson says he went to a Dungeons & Dragons meetup and ended up with a group of four guys that he played D&D with for the next three years.
  • Use daily deals, such as LivingSocial, to take classes or other activities. Alan says he met a lot of really cool people at a Living Social whiskey tasting. Actually, Thorin also says he met a lot of people at a whiskey tasting. Nothing like food and drinks to bring people together!
  • Meet people at church. As Joshua jokes, "church activities are full of people contractually obligated to be your friend."
  • Join a sports league (bonus points: get regular exercise!). My husband's part of a weekly basketball league that's recruiting new members all the time.
  • Get out with your dog (or maybe even get a puppy). Lifehacker readers Em and Powermobydick (on Twitter) say that walking their dogs and going to dog parks have helped them meet new people.
  • Other obvious but still effective ways to get out there include volunteering, starting a new hobby, joining a neighbourhood book club, and even travelling.

Once you've found a potential friend, you can get past the awkwardness of turning him or her into a friend by suggesting a common activity and setting up regular meetups, like Sunday brunches, to build that relationship. Lifehacker reader Emily Adams offers this good tip:

Also, be hospitable! organise dinners and happy hours at your house where people can be comfortable and let their guard down.

Yes, building friendships is a lot like dating — and can take as much effort and emotional investment.

If you're a mostly shy person like me who doesn't really reach out to people, new friendship potential is still there (whether you force yourself to be sociable or not). Because no matter what stage of life you're in, making friends has a lot to do with luck and chemistry too — things you can't control and can happen when you least expect it.

A Silver Lining

As difficult and different as it might seem to make new friends, I think there are at least a few benefits to doing so when you're older:

  • Your new friendships will likely be based more on shared interests — maybe new ones you didn't have when you were in school

  • You're not limited to making friends in just your age group or, with the power of the internet, even your local area

  • Your friendships may also be more relaxed and less pressure-filled, because everyone knows everyone else is so swamped (Kind-of-friends, also, Moore writes, "is the best version of friends you can have as an adult! Kind-of friends are full of possibilities and virtually none of the obligation.")

  • You might appreciate the rare times you spend with your friends (more than when you were in college and did nothing but loll about)

In fact, when you have more self-knowledge, the quality of the friendships you make (or renew) later in life can be richer than the happenstance ones from your school years, even if these friendships do take more effort to cultivate. And like the best relationships, they can also continue deepening over time.

Pictures: Eden, Janine and Jim, BoyGoku


Comments

    It's hard to make friends after school/uni? I found it's easier and I have found people who weren't full of shit.

    But then again I tend to go to things where there are people who share common interests and conversation is easily met.

    Funny I have just been looking at meetups today. I moved to Melbourne from New Zealand over a year ago and I am struggling. I'm in an office with two women over 20 years older than me and find it so hard to meet new people. Back in Christchurch I loved war gaming and was even getting into d&d. I really need to push myself to make some new friends.

    My first piece of advice is this: Realise that your degree is nice but it isn't everything in the work place. People don't really care that much about it. Treat people how you want to be treated. If you're a conceited prick, you'll get treated like one. If you're nice? Chances are you'll get treated nicely. This has *always* worked for me. I make friends in the workplace easily all the time simply because I treat people how I want to be treated.

    I think making friends in UNI is harder because well, you're more mature.

    You've gone through the "horrid" years of high school and you have a firm grasp of what people you like and don't like. The same goes with others. Unfortunately, most people you do like or are willing to be friends with are very small in numbers. Factor in things like different degrees, different enrolments, the time you can spend with them are very very limited.

    But when you do find that one or few people that have the common interest, common personality. I think your bonds with them can grow stronger than your old BFFs since you're approaching this as mature people. I found this one friend in UNI who has the same interests as me, only problem was we were both really shy and took forever to share our interests.

    Last edited 05/05/13 10:45 am

    I've returned to uni after working full time for a number of years. I'm 26, so I'm not much older than the majority of the students at the university I go to; however I switched towns to attend this university and have lived "off-campus" the entire time.

    Living off-campus eliminated most of the opportunities listed in the above article for making friends with other students. The on-campus lifestyle is very cliquey, they are all lovely people but if you're not around them with a decent level of consistency or repetition they usually forget about you. It's a bit of a shame but I guess that's life. It's been a great experience but I've ended up with a lot of acquaintances and only 1 or 2 proper friends.

      Im 35 doing the exact same and I absolutely agree. I know probably 1 or 2 people and the experience is the exact same.

    Not sure I share this experience. I made few friends at university, and hung out there mostly (not that much) with people I knew from school. I think I made many more good friends (one of whom is my wife) at my various jobs or via shared experiences, mainly through sports.

    "people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had"

    I think I made more friends in my 30s and 40's than at any other time in my life.

    I joined my local Rotaract/Rotary club and met lots of fabulous people, some of whom have become life long friends.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now