The Phone Call May Be Considered Old Fashioned, But Young Americans Are Chatting Up a Storm


In light of physical distancing in the Covid-19 era and the widely recognized import of keeping connections for both mental and social health, the New York Times ran a piece with the headline “I Just Called to Say … the Phone Call Is Back.” In the piece, the author not only argues that Americans need to use the phone in our current moment in time as the “warm timbre of a human voice in your ear is more real, more present, than text on a screen” but also that “younger generations have a bone-deep horror of ever talking on the phone; it’s axiomatic among them that anyone who actually calls you is a grandparent, scammer or psychopath.”

The Times piece is absolutely correct in noting that phone calls have “weight and consequence” compared to texting, but the piece is totally wrong in making claims about who uses the phone today as younger Americans are quite comfortable making “old fashioned” phone calls.

Younger Americans are not afraid hearing the voices of those one the line and have not rejected the phone whatsoever. In fact, younger Americans are the most communicative across an array of media. Those under 30 are far more likely to text, engage in social media, and pick up their phones to make phone calls than their older counterparts.

The AEI Survey on Community and Society looks into how we communicate in the United States and the data reveal a very different portrait of phone usage than what is widely believed.

Specifically, the survey asked about how Americans of all sorts communicate with their social intimates and found that phone conversations are fairly common in the era of Twitter. 42% of Americans state that they get together with their close friends in person a few times a week or more often and this compares to 53% - a majority of Americans - who regularly talk on the phone a few times a week or more regularly. As for email, the figure drops to 44% and social media platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook were 52% - essentially the same figure as those who pick up the phone. The most used form of communication was texting at 69% but that certainly does not negate the fact that large numbers of Americans regularly use the phone as a means to connect to their friends.

Going further, the data show that despite conventional wisdom, it is wrong to assume that younger generations of Americans are less likely to use the phone to communicate compared to older Americans; younger Americans are more communicative across the board.

The AEI data reveal that younger cohorts of Americans message each other at notably higher rates than older cohorts. 82% of those under thirty text their close friends weekly or more compared to 74% of those between 30 and 44, 66% of those 45 to 59, and 50% of those older than 60 – a 39 percent drop when we look at these older groups of Americans.

As for messaging via social media, an even larger drop off emerges between generations. 73% of those under 30, for instance, use social media to connect with their friends weekly and this figure declines 52 percentage points to just 35% of those over the age of 60.

Turning to more traditional communication channels, younger Americans are significantly in the lead once again with face to face interaction. 54% of those under 30 see their friends in person on a weekly basis compared to 37% for those between 30 and 59 and just 42% of those over 60 see their friends weekly which is similar to texting and social media usage patterns.

As for the phone, 57% of those under the age of 30 maintain that they talk on the phone weekly or more often with their close friends. That figure is actually higher than those between 30 and 44 where 47% report such regular discussions. The under 30 cohort is still a bit higher than those between 45 and 59 where 55% report weekly phone conversations as well as those over 60 where 54% do this weekly. Regrettably, the survey did not ask about video chat like FaceTime or Zoom, but there is little reason to think that younger Americans would not take the lead on those platforms as well.

Digging a bit deeper, if those who are of college age are excluded ---thus presumably physically closer more often--- among those between 24 and 30, the trends toward younger Americans being far more likely to chat on the phone remains solid; those under 30 remain the most likely to regularly see their friends in person (48%); talk on the phone (56%); and regularly text their social intimates (80%).

Thus, it is simply incorrect to argue that phone usage something that scares or is foreign to younger Americans. While many stories talk about the social dynamics of a shared home line and the eventual cutting of the cord as the country transitioned to mobile devices, younger generations that have grown up without cords but also still wanting to hear the voices of others arguments to the contrary are simply wrong. Even in these worst of times, young people are still reaching out to hear others, albeit differently than older generations.

Indeed, with this pandemic we need to hear the voices of others more than in the past and it is reasonable to think that mobile phones will actually bring us together, more intimately than before because we can connect in so many ways with those we value and love and phone calls can be reinforced with texts, social media, and email.

Moreover, technology has changed so much that we all can easily and almost freely connect with anyone around the globe.

As a GenXer, I grew up with a shared family landline in my house; it was not perfect. We would answer the phone and not know who was on the other line; we would have to share access to the phone line and ask others to wrap up their conversations if we were expecting a call; we would be tethered to a few, fairly public set of locations to make our calls; phone calls could be costly if they were long distance; and we would know who our family members were talking to. But when we had a moment of privacy, the phone was a truly intimate medium.

Americans today can use the phone for a fixed cost and reach anyone on the planet for a voice conversation. We do not need to compete for access to the phone and we can do this in the privacy of our bedrooms, while taking a walk, or even while we are in transit. The opportunity to meaningfully connect is remarkably easy and younger Americans are actually doing more of the talking.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo credit: Guido Klumpe via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.