I turned 40 earlier this year, and to mark the occasion my wife offered to help organize a birthday party. I thought that was interesting, but I also didn’t want anything big, as I prefer small groups. After giving the matter some thought, I decided to invite a handful of friends I’ve known for almost two decades now. I invited them because the group hadn’t seen each other in a while, and so it was intended as both a birthday party and a get-together for some old friends. To emphasize the point that it was as much about the latter, I told my wife to make sure they knew that I didn’t want gifts. Just hanging out.
As the early planning progressed, though, it was clear that things weren’t going entirely according to plan. Rachael pitched a couple of possible Saturdays for the party on a private Facebook group, but there wasn’t much response. When we finally did nail down a date based on the few responses we got, no one confirmed they would be there. As the weeks passed and the day grew nearer, Rachael followed up on the page to see what side dishes people were bringing (we were providing hot dogs, burgers, drinks, and cake), but we didn’t hear back from anyone. And when, a week ahead of time, I followed up myself to see who was coming, I finally received a few belated declines and one confirmation, with the qualification that the sole confirmed attendee would be late. We never heard at all from some invitees.
On the Tuesday before the party, I made a decision. I told Rachael that we should go ahead and cancel the party. I did so because I was staring at prospect of sitting around at my own birthday party wondering if anyone would be there.
I should hasten to add a couple of things. One, I don’t have any ill feelings toward my friends (more on this in a moment). Two, I was fortunate to have made the decision before the day itself. Three, I had a very nice day that day with my family, so it was not at all a bad day. And four, I was fortunate … because I was not a child, and I was fortunate enough to have a family that I could fall back on to hang out with that day. I don’t even want to think what it would feel like for a single adult or for a young impressionable child.
But the experience did get me thinking about the state of parties in America. And the more I looked into it, the more I realized this is a growing issue in American social life.
Some time later, I idly brought the story up with a relative. The relative told me several stories of parties and gatherings in recent years where no one showed up, including events with lots of planning put into them. The relative also pointed me to this thread on Reddit about a 21st birthday bash where no one showed up; both the original post and the comments are worth reading. I did a little more Googling on my own, specifically regarding kids, and it wasn’t hard to find a few sad stories there, too.
There was a time, not that long ago, when occasions like this one would have been the center of American cultural life. What changed?
Here’s my best guess.
We’re crazy busy.
It is truly amazing how busy people are now, especially families with kids. I remember a few years ago a colleague of mine confessed that she kept a Windows smartphone because of its calendar, which she lived and died by given the schedules of her three children. A single sport alone can eat up weekends and some evenings, and when you add other extracurriculars among multiple kids, that’s a schedule booked solid, to say nothing of grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, and other necessities. Our daughters are only involved in a couple of activities, but even those can easily balloon out.
And we’re not necessarily talking about bad stuff. I mean, what’s not to like about Girl Scouts, the arts, or kids being physically active and learning things like balance and sportsmanship? But, oh, how fast it multiplies on the calendar! That makes it nigh impossible to come up with, say, a birthday party date that a group of people can all make happen in their schedules.
I know that was the case in my situation. Most of my friends have multiple kids, and with their own hectic schedules, I strongly suspected that was a major factor. That’s life, especially nowadays.
Social media and other digital communication take away our incentive to get together.
This probably applies more to adults and older children than younger ones, but there’s no question in my mind that social media has probably had an impact on in-person parties. We’ve seen a decrease in high school reunions because of it. Now, I tend to think that social media does a lot of good things. I especially love how it keeps me in contact with family members, friends, and others who I might otherwise lose total contact with. But the flip side is that it can take away our motivation to connect in person. If you see people online and you know the general outlines of their lives, the need to catch up in person is perhaps less.
Any other reasons?
It might be tempting to suggest that there are more malicious reasons why people don’t show up to parties, and maybe in some cases that’s true. Maybe some people are just self-absorbed. But I strongly suspect that a lot of this isn’t malicious. It’s simple neglect, born out of the fact that our first loyalty is toward our schedule, which may not have room for other things.
Some might also point to cost. Attending a lot of parties is expensive. That is a fair point, and depending on where you live there can be a lot of social pressure to get expensive gifts for each occasion … which is why I think there is something to be said for a party (such as the one my wife attempted to plan) where the organizer tells people not to bring gifts.
So what to do?
That is the question, and I don’t have any easy fixes. Life doesn’t seem to be getting less busy for most people, and social media certainly isn’t going anywhere. Navigating this subject will continue to be challenging, especially for parents who want to make sure special events like birthdays don’t end up in disappointment.
So … what do things look like where you live? Do you have any other ideas or thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
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