David Attenborough would have a field day with the male homo sapiens.
They may be a strange species, but—I will give them this—they are consistently fascinating across the board. From broader subspecies (Alpha Males, Ah Bengs, Christian Boys) to more niche ones, such as Men Who Blue-Tick Or Selectively Reply Your Texts But Continue To Watch All Your IG Stories, each one leaves me with more unanswered questions than watching a certain minister talk about POFMA with Michelle Chong.
But there is one subspecies I had never given much thought until now: Men In Their 50s Who Appear To Have Zero Friends.
This subspecies is typically middle-class with their own family. Their lives follow a familiar routine: after work, they go home, have dinner, and spend the rest of the night watching TV or videos on their phones. Rinse and repeat—every day.
In their spare time or on weekends, they do grocery shopping at their neighbourhood NTUC FairPrice, sit at mall food courts scrolling their phones, or just … I don’t know … exist?
If you are in your early to mid-20s, chances are you live with one such specimen in your own home: your dad.
“Aside from work and family, my dad doesn’t seem to have friends. I think this is a thing, you know,” a colleague enthuses one day.
Let’s call her X. When I ask X to elaborate on her observation, she sends me a WhatsApp message that’s essentially an 800-word essay (!!).
“I feel bad for him because my mom has quite a few friends, and so do my sister and I. When we’re not around, he’s kinda alone. Surely this will get worse when my sis and I eventually get married and move out,” she begins.
“At his job, he’s the boss so he doesn’t really socialise with his colleagues. He eats a lot of his meals alone. And if something bad happens at work or at home who can he talk to right? He complains a lot to my mom about work and life already, but I don’t think it’s healthy to heap all of this onto one person. I don’t quite comprehend how someone can go through life with family being their only support system.”
While X’s dad doesn’t hate socialising, he doesn’t actively build or maintain strong friendships either, probably because “he’s not looking for anything long term, just some social interaction every now and then”.
Other friends reveal a similar pattern: their dads return home after work, then spend the evening with family and/or alone. Sometimes, they while away time by drifting in and out of their children’s rooms after dinner to make conversation, or park themselves on the corner of a couch watching Youtube.
If they have regular ‘hobbies’, they’re mostly solitary ones, such as reading, exercising, taking walks, going to the museum, tending to potted plants, commenting on car forums, scrolling through Facebook, playing golf, and so on.
Outside work, their social interactions are usually limited to their children or wife’s friends (although the latter is extremely rare). A few mention their dads “keeping in touch with friends” via WhatsApp, but rarely see their dads actually spend time with said friends.
One friend says his dad attends the occasional school reunion, but otherwise doesn’t have friends whom he meets often.
Their dads’ reasons for a relatively solitary lifestyle include “no time”, “no reason to [hang out with friends]”, “prefer spending time at home”, or simply that they just prefer life this way.
Almost everyone intuitively understands how the exact demographic in question operates, but it’s trickier to pinpoint the root of the phenomena. And as a Single Female Millennial, I am the furthest possible subspecies from Men In Their 50s.
But I get it.
For starters, it’s common knowledge that friendships tend to dwindle significantly once you become a parent, and this is no one’s fault. Parenting is simply the most life-changing and all-consuming job in the world.
When you’re not changing diapers, you’re thinking of the next time you have to change diapers. Or find a Good School for your child to attend. Or deal with conflicting in-law parenting techniques.
Or basically just ensure your kid doesn’t die on your watch.
Thus most parents would be familiar with the inevitable gravitation towards their child becoming the fulcrum upon which their universe hinges. This unconscious decision usually entails solely focusing on work outside of family, so they can provide for said family, and often results in the culling of many ‘frivolous pursuits’.
Drinking with your buddies till 1 AM: No go. Sleeping in till 11 AM on weekends and spending the rest of the day in bed poring over Netflix: Not anymore. Spontaneously arranging to meet a friend in town for brunch just a few hours before: Are you shitting me? Absolutely not.
Life becomes a succession of precise and predictable plans. With ‘adventure’ nuked from a parent’s vocabulary, every routine is meant to minimise any chance of mess ups, which might be a mere headache for regular folk but could actually cause a ruptured blood vessel for parents.
Apparently though, this ‘affliction’ doesn’t quite befall their female counterparts (i.e. Women/Moms In Their 50s). Perhaps women, in general, appear to more readily engage in idle gossip and chit-chat, therefore giving themselves more opportunities to socialise with new friends or acquaintances in their later years.
The same friends whose dads have little/no friends report their moms being more likely to turn colleagues into friends, develop interests and hobbies that grant them access to a whole new community, or become friends with other moms.
So they don’t worry as much about what their moms would do or how they’d occupy their time after retirement.
Dads In Their 50s, however, grew up in a time when men were usually the sole breadwinner in the family. They were taught to prioritise putting in hard work and doing everything to provide for their families. As a result, friendships were seen as secondary to their mental and emotional wellbeing.
If there was time to cultivate thriving friendships, that was simply a bonus. Friendships were never a necessity for a ‘good life’.
And so, in their early/mid-30s to 50s, Dads In Their 50s gave up friendships to raise us.
Unfortunately, these years are crucial for building sustainable lifelong adult friendships, which are already tedious to maintain even if one were single.
Once their children are grown adults, Dads In Their 50s realise they no longer have the social circles they used to have in their 20s. At this stage, their friends are either married and/or with their own families, or they’ve stayed single and led a starkly different life that it would be near impossible to reunite based on common interests.
Unless they were intentional enough to rekindle friendships or court new friends, Dads In Their 50s can hardly make “friends” who aren’t other Dads In Their 50s.
That said, fading friendships have been a thing since time immemorial, and seem to plague Men Of All Ages. As it is, a male friend once mentioned feeling like he’d lost all his friends after becoming a parent. He now struggles to bridge the chasm between his old life and his present reality as a parent.
Though no man is an island, many eventually learn to be self-reliant, although not reclusive.
Many of us are eons away from retirement, so the prospect of how or with whom we’re going to spend our old age might be a mere abstraction. But, if our Dads In Their 50s are anything to go by, those of us who plan to get married and start families should pay heed to the seemingly inevitable death of our social circles.
Even though pop culture rarely accords as much weight to friendships as romantic relationships, the significance of having close friends throughout life cannot be understated. After all, it is only healthy to have our own priorities that aren’t tied to familial obligations.
If we don’t want to turn out like Men In Their 50s Who Appear To Have Zero Friends, then cultivating friendships should be an intentional and lifelong endeavour.
But therein lies another issue: while our concerns that our Dads In Their 50s don’t get lonely in old age stem from a good place, we might also unwittingly be perpetuating the idea that solitude or being alone is a ‘bad thing’, and that extroversion or socialisation is the ‘norm’.
There seem to be few people who are as comfortable taking walks alone, eating alone, going shopping alone, travelling alone, spending time alone, as Men In Their 50s Who Appear To Have Zero Friends. It might often be an inadvertent consequence of marriage and starting a family, but let’s not presume they aren’t perfectly content.
It is often said that all you need is one person. Men In Their 50s Who Appear To Have Zero Friends remind us this person should, first and foremost, be ourselves.