Who should you expect to spend your life with?

37

PracticalWorld Optimization
Frontpage

Striking things about the figure below, which I got from Our World in Data, on time use:

  • People spend increasing time alone over their whole lives, with the exception of roughly their twenties. This surprises me a bit because it seems like people like spending time with other people, and I would expect them to increasingly succeed at it with experience and time to acquire partners and families and friends.
  • From 31 to 45, people spend more time with children1 on average than they spend with any other category of person, including for instance partners and colleagues.
  • You might think all this children time would be substituting for some partner time, but as the children time swoops downward by three quarters, partner time stays about the same.
  • People are at a relationship-time-steady-state between about thirty and sixty. I imagine that many people start relationships in that time, so does that mean that they also stop them at about the same rate, or gradually reduce time with their partners at a rate matching others’ forming of new relationships? Are people radically less likely to start relationships after about thirty?
  • People spend broadly decreasing time with every group except their partner over time, from some early peak for each trend—in the teenage years for friends and family, and in the 20s and 30s for colleagues and children. I wonder how many people just like being alone and with their partners more than most other options, and steadily optimize for that, once they have been sociable enough to find a partner in their early years.
  • Coworker time peaks at age 25-30 and goes slowly downward before the retirement descent. Is that from people dropping out of the workforce? Earning themselves a nice private office? Some difference between junior and senior roles?
  • People spend fairly consistent time with their friends after a decline from 18 to 40. Retirement doesn’t increase it. Spending three hours a day fewer with children doesn’t increase it. I guess those things go to solitude.

In other news, Our World In Data seems awesome.

  1. I’m guessing that this means ‘any children’ rather than ‘their own children’, because the rate for 15 year olds seems high 

37

7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:34 AM
New Comment

If I had to guess, I bet that when children leave the home, partner time spend becomes more bimodal, with people who like their partners spending more time together, and people who were mostly co-parents with their partners spending less time together. This could net out to making it look like there's not that much change.

  • People are at a relationship-time-steady-state between about thirty and sixty. I imagine that many people start relationships in that time, so does that mean that they also stop them at about the same rate, or gradually reduce time with their partners at a rate matching others’ forming of new relationships? Are people radically less likely to start relationships after about thirty?

I would wager that it's the last one. New relationship formation goes way down after the 20s, meaning that from the 30s thru the 60s people are mostly maintaining existing relationships, and the new relationships that they do form are being matched approximately by the ones that die out.

Is this a problem? I'm not sure. It does suggest that you should be serious and intentional about your relationship choices when you're in your 20s, because the people you build community with in that period will be the greater part of your relationships that you have for your entire life. Personally, nearing the age of 40, I find that this is mostly correct. The relative strength of various relationships has waxed and waned over time, but I have trouble thinking of too many people I know now that I did not know already in my 20s.

I can't see the graph. I'd also love to know the variability across people and demographics. 

I think I fixed the graph. Not actually sure why it broke, but crossposting sometimes runs into weird problems.

Young people of the same age are relatively similar to each other. Their life experience is mostly being someone's kids, and attending school. Their desires are to explore things, and discover their own limits. They also often see each other as potential partners. They often have a lot of free time.

The flip side is that a small absolute difference of age can make a huge difference. For kids, plus or minus three years is like a different species.

Older people are more specialized. They have different professions, different family situations. And less free time, because they have their jobs, partners, kids. They are less flexible, because they had decades to find their personal preferences and build their habits (both good and bad). This all makes socializing harder.

The absolute age differences matter much less; a 40 years old can easily have a conversation with a 30 years old, or a 50 years old. The more salient difference is the job and family situation: two adults having the same kind of job and kids of similar age will have many topics in common, regardless of the age difference between them. Two adults of the same age, one with family and kids, and the other single, are like different species.

On a meta level, the older you get, the more insight you have into the things I described here. Young people underestimate how much their social circle is shaped by attending the same school, and how easily it can fall apart then the school is over. Older people, interacting with their colleagues, are often aware that they are only one job interview away from starting anew; but they don't have much time to interact with their non-job friends.

(Not sure how much of what I described here is true generally, and how much I just generalized from 1 example.)

Interactions with others have costs as well as benefits. It's easy to stick around when everything is smooth and easy (as anyone that has been dropped the second their life becomes difficult is aware).

As humans we now routinely live in troops of millions, and thanks to the internet, troops of hundreds of millions. We used to live in troops of tens to hundreds. Our strategies have adapted to our environment changing.

These days if anyone is too costly, or even if we simply tire of them, there are millions waiting to act as replacements. Where once there were deep relationships borne of the hardships of life and the  greater cost of exile, now there is low cost to alienating thousands or millions. Burning bridges is the norm, not the exception.

People used to have little choice and it forced them to solve their disagreements (and shared adversity of any kind causes bonding). Now you can be genuinely difficult or displeasing and not only will that cost you nothing, you'll probably end up with a fan club, if not an actual income from them. 

It's never been easier to be on your own than today. So that's what many people choose.

Some graphs from the UK: