Friendships? Ah, they're just a 20th-century concept; we must now make do with unbonded friends

Some years ago when a friend of mine was involved in producing a British version of Wired magazine, he took me out to dinner with some of the cutting-edge Americans involved. God knows why - I think I had only just graduated from an Amstrad. Anyway these people were wired, weird and extremely clever. They lived in another world. It wasn't even California. It was worse. The conversation was so out there, as they say, I tried to engage on a more personal level.

This is always a mistake. One of these guys was extremely important - a guru of cyberspace and extremely rich. He lived in Geneva, on the West Coast, on the East Coast and sometimes in Paris.

"It must be difficult," I ventured, "keeping up friendships." "I find the concept of friendship just so 20th century," he replied. Friends, he told me, were just the people you were with at the time, wherever you were. I had been put in my place. Sadly, I had not graduated, as he clearly had, to the 21st century. I spent the rest of the evening talking about drugs with some of the other guys, strange, pierced, awkward geeks. At least they didn't try and dress up their social inadequacy as some kind of philosophy.

But I thought about it when I read of new research that said that we all have fewer friends than we used to. Apparently, thirtysomethings have fewer friends than they would have done 20 years ago, but the friendships they have are more intense.

The sociology professor who conducted this research concludes that this is because middle-class attitudes are taking over. We move around more because of work, families fragment, we marry later and get divorced more often. The need for friendship is greater than ever, but we are more ruthless about it. We are happy to let go of people if they don't fit in with our lifestyles any more.

The last time I read anything about friendship it was about how friendship was replacing the family. This discussion was brought about by the success of the programme Friends, in which six attractive young people live together as a surrogate family. Actual family members in this American comedy are seen as a kind of embarrassing intrusion into the intimate but wacky world they live in.

The sociologists make a distinction between bonded friends and unbonded ones. Or between close friends and less close ones, I suppose. For the average urbanite, an unbonded friendship might last up to seven years, and they can look forward to abandoning at least 1,000 friends over a lifetime. If this is true, it paints a rather sad picture of contemporary life. The rise of middle-class attitudes may not be as rosy as it is often portrayed. People may be wealthier, but we are in many ways lonelier. If we are so preoccupied with our jobs that we don't have the time or the energy for other people, then can we really be said to be living the good life?

At a time of war, the sociology of happiness may look like a rather superficial pursuit, but the micro-politics of our personal relationships are indeed significant. There is little point in talking of collective action or solidarity to a generation who live an increasingly atomised existence. If we are willing to excommunicate our former friends because we need that next promotion, we have to wonder what the point of the obsession with success really comes to.

A government that proclaims itself interested in our overall quality of life cannot legislate for us to have more friends. But it could ask itself what the consequences of its relentless preoccupation with work might mean. Community, civic responsibility and even good neighbourliness require time, time that too many of us feel we simply don't have.

Men, we know, particularly suffer from a lack of intimate friendships, which is why they tend to function better in marriage, which often provides a social life that they don't have to initiate. What we are actually producing is a culture of pretend friendship. We send cards, messages, flowers, to those that we can't really be bothered to see. Perhaps we should say to each new person we like, "I'm sorry, I have already got my quota of bonded friends, so I can't fit you in at all," and be done with the charade.

Yet no man is an island, not even the Prime Minister. The surprise of Donald Macintyre's revealing biography of Peter Mandelson is personal rather than political. The relationships between Blair, Brown and Mandelson are so intense that they talk to each other as lovers do. All of this is done in the name of the great project of new Labour, with both Brown and Mandelson vying for Blair's full, undying friendship, and Blair refusing to choose between them. Two's company, three's a titanic feud.

Mandelson's demise was read as a lesson in what happens when you have loads of unbonded friends and few bonded ones. He knew everyone and went everywhere but, when the chips were down, few would publicly support him. And so even those who despised what he stood for felt rather sorry for him as he seemed so alone.

Perhaps it is only when you are down that you realise the value of decent friends. Yet how are such friendships to be built in an increasingly fragmented world? Not through e-mail, that's for sure. Not by moving from place to place in search of a better job, not from that horrible thing called networking. The so-called decline in family values is something that I am happy to live with, the decline in valuing friendship is something far more serious. Or am I just being too 20th century for my own good?

The writer is a columnist with the "Mail on Sunday"