Do Our Neighbors Matter to Us Anymore?

When I was growing up in my small town of Dunmore, Pennsylvania, neighbors were part of my everyday life. During the summers, the first thing I’d do everyday was head outside to see who was around, then spend the rest of the day playing with the other neighborhood kids. 

That was back in the 1960s and late 50s. It wasn’t just the kids who were friendly with the neighbors back then. The house where I lived had a patio and many evenings, after dinner, grownups from the neighborhood would gather there to chat and relax. 

I could sense that things were different when I was writing my 2015 book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. Sure enough, I found this:

“A national survey ongoing since 1974 has shown that Americans have never been less likely to be friends with their neighbors as they are now. The lowest levels of neighborliness were recorded in the suburbs.”

Generations of children grew up hearing Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ask, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” This November Tom Hanks will star in the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, released in 2018, was remarkably successful

Is the popularity of Mister Rogers, more than 50 years after the first episode aired, just sentimentality or do neighbors still have a place of significance in the lives of adults in the U.S.? The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2018, and just published their results a few weeks ago. One of the most consistent findings was that age mattered. To underscore that, some of the results were reported separately for four age groups: 18-29; 30-49; 50-64; and 65 and older.

1. Most Americans know at least some of their neighbors.

In every age group, more than half (between 54 and 59%) knew at least some of their neighbors. 

2. Older Americans know more of their neighbors than younger ones.

The older people were more likely to know most of their neighbors. Only 20% of the youngest group said they knew most of their neighbors; that number grew to 34% for the oldest group. 

People who were 65 and older almost never said that they knew none of their neighbors. In the youngest group (18-29-year-olds), though nearly 1 in 4 said that — 23%, compared to just 4% for the oldest group. 

3. Among those who know at least some of their neighbors, about two-thirds would trust them with a key to their place.

Averaged across all the people in the survey who said they knew at least some of their neighbors, 66% said they would feel comfortable asking to leave a set of keys with their neighbors for emergencies. That level of trust was identical for the men and the women. 

Again, though, age mattered. Only half of the youngest adults said they would trust neighbors they knew with a key to their place. Many more of the oldest adults — 80% — said that they would. 

Money was also important. Among the wealthiest families (with incomes of more than $75,000), probably living in the wealthiest neighborhoods, about 3 in 4 of them (76%) said they would trust a neighbor they knew with their house key. In the least wealthy neighborhoods (incomes less than $30,000), 58% would be willing to give a key to their place to a neighbor they knew. 

4. People who live in rural areas are more likely to know most of their neighbors. But they are no more likely to have face-to-face conversations with them. 

According to our stereotypes, people who live in cities keep to themselves, while country folk get to know their neighbors. In one way, the Pew results were consistent with those beliefs: only 24% of urban residents said they knew all or most of their neighbors, compared to 40% of rural residents. (Among suburbanites, the figure was 28%.)

But when asked whether they had face-to-face conversations with the neighbors they knew, the people who lived in rural areas were no more likely to say that they did than the people who lived in cities or suburbs. In all three groups, about half said that they had such conversations at least once a week (53% for urban, 49% for suburban, and 47% for rural). 

5. Neighbors communicate in person more than any other way.

Among Americans who know at least some of their neighbors, only 7 percent communicate with them by phone and the same number communicate with them by email or text message. More than twice that many, 20%, say they have face-to-face conversations, several times a week, with the neighbors they know. 

6. Most people never have parties or other get-togethers with their neighbors. 

Asked about attending parties or other get-togethers with their neighbors, nearly 6 in 10 (58%) said that never happened. Still, a non-trivial number, 28%, said they sometimes go to social events with their neighbors, and 1 in 7 do so at least once a month. 

The Pew survey did not ask people whether they were happy with the amount of contact they had with their neighbors. In my research for How We Live Now, I found that people varied a lot in how much they cared about that. People who really wanted their neighbors to be a part of their lives sometimes took pro-active steps to make that happen. They might, for example, initiate events themselves. Sometimes they look for a place to live in which friendly relationships with other community members are known to be valued. Cohousing communities, for example, are built on that principle. In the U.S., there are fewer than 200 cohousing communities, but they are getting more and more attention, so it is possible that their numbers will grow. 

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