Friendship in a Market-Driven World – An Essay by Sandra Tzvetkova

NYC Brooklyn Bridge Painters 1914

An eighteen year old’s summer, as I remember it, is populated with friends old and new: flitting between the world you’ve just left behind and the one you’ve just entered. A time of exceeding the texting limits set by your mobile plan all in the name of unwittingly forging the relationships that will shape you and long outlive your flip phone. That summer, I had found a job working at the reception of a hotel in Richmond, Virginia. In the first days behind the counter, I was patting myself on the back. I had worked in a low-paid retail job during high school, and I was proud of having snagged a higher hourly wage in my foray into the job market. But as the long workdays dragged on in a scratchy suit under bright lights out of sync with the cloudless summer outside, a nagging daydream kept playing out in my head. In the daydream, I am getting ice cream with a friend in my town. We’re laughing at jokes and sharing tales of college. A nondescript, suited person approaches us and offers to pay me ten dollars for an hour of my time. This is notably more than what I am earning at the hotel. Doing what? I ask. Just doing nothing, she replies. Her outstretched hand holds up the cash offer. I turn it down. It’s absurd! The hour spent with my friend is worth more than that petty cash.

But you know what? As the daydream ends, there I am in the hotel, restricted from using my phone or the Internet, from seeing or interacting with friends. And I’m getting paid less than ten dollars an hour as I wait for the sliding doors to admit a new guest and a gush of warm breeze. It’s a bit of a chilling thought to have: how much is time with your friends actually worth? And it’s a thought intimately provoked by the economic system in which most of us function. Anyone exchanging his or her time for money in order to sustain themselves will have experienced the nuanced reverberations of capitalism. But have we thought about how it affects friendship?

Friendship in our time 

I like the way that Todd May describes friendship in his NYT op-ed, “Friendship in the Age of Economics”. Like the prompt for this issue of Lemon, he draws on Aristotle’s three categories of friendship: those of pleasure, those of usefulness, and those of true friendship. The first two, he pegs as in line with our economic system: we seek to gain something from those friends. We want instant pleasure and entertainment from the first type and an investment that will yield a return from the second. Banter and networking. The third type, however, is the elusive one that doesn’t fit snugly with economics. May says of this type: “Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life”. He describes this form of friendship as long-term, defying the short-termism of consumerism and skirting the usefulness of investments. It takes time and requires a certain vulnerability that truly exposes us.

But is this how our society sees friendship? On Pinterest and pillows around the world, a warped echo of this sentiment preaches:

“Good friends are
hard to find,
harder to leave,
and impossible to forget.”

And also:

“Good friends are like Stars,
You don’t always see them
But you know they are
Always there.”

Perhaps these sayings refer to the kind of relationships that May describes, but if we subscribe to them, then good friends are very difficult to find and once found, often invisible. We are apparently going after some truly memorable, heart-touching, not to mention valuable, leprechauns. Of course, you can’t fully capture the contemporary essence of friendship on a square pillow or its modern-day equivalent, Instagram.

Nevertheless, some of these much-circulated words aptly reflect the way our economic system affects our perception of friends. Like all other resources, good friends are seen as scarce. Why is this? The human population is growing at a fearful rate, coupled with globalization and leaps in communications technology, shouldn’t good friends be easier than ever to find?

The economic factors that May alludes to are at play. In a system where competition drives the all-important engine of growth, and ever fiercer competition is facilitated by globalization and technological improvements, good friends might indeed become harder to come by. After all, once we leave the comfort of our parents’ home and enter “the market”, the friendl(ier) competition we experienced in school soccer games transforms into the pursuit of careers. This too is a competition, but it is one that defines our time on Earth in a profound way. The stakes are raised, and it can feel like an ‘every man for himself’ world.

Winning the race in your professional field by becoming the CEO, the tenured professor, the government minister is the aspiration of many, and the achievement of few. Even landing a job is a close race for the younger age bracket in many economies. In addition to this, the nature of careers has changed over time. While parents to the millennial generation may have expected to spend comfortable decades in one job, for better or worse, millennials are the career jugglers of today. As Forbes says, “the era they have grown up in has shown them that nothing is a guarantee”. In an uncertain job market where success and income is secured by constantly looking out for and marketing yourself, building a deep trust in others might become a risky and secondary pursuit.

Time is Money

This leads us to the question of when this pursuit would even take place. Those “true” friendships mentioned earlier, the ones that build on shared lives and empathy, but might yield no immediate or tangible payoff? They require time. Most of our time is spent at work. Perhaps this is why we have the pillow/Instagram maxim insisting that “friends are like stars,” not always visible, but presumably always there. It’s a comforting thought, that as you stare at your computer screen(s) a guardian friend is thinking of you from afar. But in reality the things that we dedicate most of our time and attention to are the things that grow. The more time we amass at work – gaining experience, honing professional skills – the more valuable our time becomes on the market. This is the goal of most professionals, after all. But does achieving it influence how much of our time we are willing to part with in search and development of true friends? It seems disappointing and sad that the point at which we are learning a lot about the world around us and our place in it would also be a time when we are just too busy to engage in the depth of friendships (both new and old) that might allow us to share and learn from our experiences. But then of course, we do also have co-workers.

If friends are the family you choose, then co-workers are the family you don’t choose. You may certainly end up seeing more of them than your actual family. Not all workplace dynamics are the same; some work situations and personalities can lead to meaningful friendships that last well past your professional parting. But the workplace can also “crackle with competition,” according to Dr. Adams – a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. If you are vying for an increase or a promotion, it is less likely that you will reveal your vulnerabilities to your colleagues. This catch-22 ensures that the people you spend the majority of your time with are also the people you might end up most shielded from.

A friend in need…

And yet, letting your guard down is key to a meaningful friendship. Times of adversity expose your weaknesses and sift out your closest friends. Who brings you the chicken soup, the tissues, the crutches? One thing society isn’t as eager to ask is: who brings you the money?

Searching ‘money and friends’ online summons page after page of cautionary tales. “10 Reasons Why You Should NOT Lend Money to Friends”, “5 Reasons Never to Borrow Money From a Friend”, “Four Ways to Destroy a Friendship With Money”. It’s an eerie blend of our current obsession with lists and the need to compartmentalize our economic well being away from the rest of our lives. If you ask the first hit, AskMen, “Mr. Mafioso” will matter-of-factly advise: “It goes without saying that friends and money don’t go hand-in-hand. I don’t care how chummy you are, how close you are or how many hookers you’ve shared with a friend; when it comes to money, friendships are always put aside and ego comes into play.” Over the friction of my gritting teeth, I have to admit Mafioso has a point. Money is often elevated above friendship. In most of the horror-stricken scenarios depicted in the online list-articles, Friend 1 lends Friend 2 money. Friend 2 doesn’t promptly pay back the money. Friend 2 then: a). vanishes, or b). is no longer a friend. What has happened?

The values of our two systems have fundamentally clashed. As a true friend we are understanding, open, and generous. As a participant in the market we are rational, independent, and self-interested. The two sets of virtues are at odds with each other; fully embracing both would require a split personality. So when Friend 2 has indefinitely headed off with your money, your split personality confronts a confusing situation. You think as a self-interested individual and suspect your friend of doing likewise, but you also desire to understand and help your friend. In the end, being a market participant often prevails over being a friend. This is not necessarily because we are inherently self-interested, but because the system allocating our resources rewards and enforces this behavior with tangible and immediate returns. Not only this, but a person’s individual success and standing in society is at least partially a reflection of their worth in the market. Lending money to a friend lays painfully bare the fact that one friend has a higher worth: the power dynamic between the two shifts. This is perhaps where Mafioso’s assertion that “ego comes into play” kicks in.

Imagine another scenario. You find out you are earning significantly more than a close friend of yours. Maybe your friend works just as hard as you do, but your chosen occupation is simply more valuable in the market at that point. Do you discuss and lament the disparity? Maybe. But you don’t offer to systematically make things fairer by subsidizing their income. Your friend would not accept such an offer either. Perhaps you pay for some shared coffees, dinners, and outings. But to preserve their dignity and save your friendship from being polluted by the values attached to the market, lump sum transfer is not an option. Your true-friend-self agrees to file away the conundrum and your rational self sighs a relief.

Can you step into someone else’s life stream while ignoring economics, or are you doing so in rubber boots?

10 Ways to Fix the Problem

There are no ten ways to fix this problem; some might argue it isn’t a problem at all. Nevertheless, friendship is important. It is a perennial topic in fields ranging from philosophy and evolutionary biology to behavioral economics. It guides the way we act towards one another, and that has a lot of impact.

Yet, friendship isn’t something that exists in a bubble above reality. Friendship is mingled with and shaped by the socioeconomic system that affects our everyday lives. Participation in the market structures our time and influences our core values. Understanding this and seeing how it impacts our relationships might provoke us to reevaluate the competitive environment we take for granted. It might even allow us to consider whether true friendship has the capacity to shape our socioeconomic system, rather than the other way around.


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