Social connectedness among Australian males

Content type
Major Report

December 2021


Brendan Quinn, Jennifer Prattley, Bosco Rowland

Part of a collection

Executive summary

Social connectedness is important for optimal health and overall wellbeing and longevity. Conversely, limited social connectedness is associated with a variety of poorer mental and physical health outcomes and risk behaviours including depression, substance use, sleep problems and cardiovascular disease.

Limited social connectedness is more common among Australian males compared to females. Understanding how men develop and maintain social connectivity and community participation is important for optimising their health and wellbeing, and for informing targeted interventions to promote and enhance social connectedness among Australian men.

The research presented in this report describes social connectedness among adult Australian males. Across five empirical chapters, subjective and objective indicators of self-perceived social support, attachment relationships and community integration are investigated, associated health and wellbeing outcomes are examined, and factors associated with greater levels of social connectedness are identified. Data were from surveys with adult participants for the first two waves (2013/14 and 2015/16) of Ten to Men: The Australian Longitudinal Study on Male Health (TTM). At Wave 1, 13,896 adult men were surveyed; at Wave 2 there were 10,729 adult participants.

Findings from each chapter are summarised below.

Levels of social connectedness among adult Australian males

In 2015/16, most Australian men aged 18-60 appeared well-connected with, and felt supported by, their families, friends and communities. Around two-thirds of males in this age group were estimated to be married or in a de facto relationship and over 90% lived with at least one other person. Around half had between five and 15 close friends or relatives. Around three-quarters experienced at least moderate levels of self-perceived social support, and satisfaction with their personal relationships was generally high. Eighty-five per cent were employed.

Active membership of sports or hobby clubs or associations was more common among men overall than ongoing community service activities such as volunteering (37% vs 24%, respectively). Around 15% attended religious services at least monthly.

A significant minority of adult males experienced limited social connectedness. For example, approximately 4% had no close friends or relatives, a proportion that was relatively consistent across age groups. One-quarter of men experienced low levels of self-perceived social support, and 1%-2% were completely dissatisfied with their personal relationships.

Men who were more socially isolated typically experienced lower levels of perceived social support and satisfaction with relationships. Multivariable analysis findings showed that being unemployed, being single and living alone were significantly associated with less social support and relationship satisfaction after adjusting for other factors. Older age was also independently associated with lower perceived social support and relationship satisfaction, as was greater conformity to masculine norms.

Social connectedness and social support in the context of social life events

In 2015/16, about half of Australian men aged 18-60 had experienced at least one social life event (e.g. serious relationship break-up, started first job, got married, moved house) in the past year that may have affected their social connectedness.

Experiences in both family and employment domains appeared to affect levels of social support among men. Specifically, those who had difficulty finding work, men who experienced conflict with a family member during midlife, or young men who left home for the first time in the past year had the lowest levels of perceived support, on average.

Fifteen per cent of men aged 18-60 had experienced difficulty finding a job in the past year. The negative relationship between difficulty in finding a job and perceived social support was consistent across all ages and socio-economic groups. It was the single event, out of those studied, that had the greatest impact on perceived social support in each age group.

Men aged 35-60 who had experienced serious conflict with a family member in the past year had lower levels of perceived social support compared to those who had not experienced such conflict.

Is there a bidirectional relationship between depression and self-perceived social support among Australian men?

Experience of depressive symptoms and perceived social support were contemporaneously correlated with each other among Australian men over the surveyed period 2013-16. On average, lower levels of self-perceived social support led to worse depressive symptoms during this time, and worse depressive symptoms led to lower perceived social support.

Experiencing depression had a substantially greater influence on levels of social support over time than self-perceived social support did on depression.

For adult Australian males, there is evidence of a bidirectional association between depression and self-support.

Experience of functional difficulty and social connectedness among Australian males

Adult males who experienced functional difficulty in 2015/16 were typically less socially connected than those without difficulty. For example, a significantly greater percentage of men with serious functional difficulty lived alone compared to those without difficulty (11% vs 5%, respectively). Men with some or serious difficulty were significantly more likely to have no close friends or relatives than those without difficulty (5%-8% vs 2%, respectively). Multivariable analysis findings demonstrated that the experience of functional difficulty was negatively correlated with self-perceived social support, even after taking socio-demographic and psychosocial factors into account.

Older men with difficulty may be particularly vulnerable to being socially disconnected. Among adult males with serious difficulty, those aged 55-60 had significantly lower levels of self-perceived social support than men in all other age groups.

Men with serious difficulty were also significantly less likely to be employed/working for profit or pay compared to both men with some difficulty and those without difficulty. Across all ages, at least 70% of men without difficulty were employed; in comparison, employment rates among men with serious difficulty ranged from 38%-67%, depending on age.

Community engagement and participation among adult Australian males

In 2013/14, men who engaged in certain community-based activities reported significantly greater average levels of perceived social support compared to those who did not take part. Further, involvement in community-based activities was shown to directly improve personal wellbeing, while also enhancing perceived social support, which further indirectly and positively affected wellbeing.

Multivariable analysis findings pointed to specific subgroups of Australian men with lower rates of engagement in community-based activities in 2013/14. For example, men living in inner or outer regional areas of Australia were significantly more likely to participate in community service activities, such as volunteering, than men living in major cities. Compared to employed men, those who were unemployed or out of the labour force were less likely to be active members of community-based sports or hobby clubs/associations. Men from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were less likely to participate in ongoing community service activities or be active members of sports or hobby clubs/associations.

Age differences were observed; the younger age (18-24) was associated with an increased likelihood of having an active membership with a sports or hobby club/association compared to older cohorts and with a decreased likelihood of involvement in ongoing community service activities.

Policy and practice implications

Implications of the research in this report are summarised here.

  • Providing opportunities for physical activity and other types of social engagement in accessible or incidental contexts (e.g. in the workplace) may address low social connectedness among Australian men of working age.
  • Local government could be supported and funded to develop initiatives to enhance community integration more broadly among adult males. This could include targeting younger men, with a focus on maintaining social connectedness as they age.
  • Clinical and prevention approaches that focus on promoting or enhancing social connectedness might assist with improving mental wellbeing, and preventing poor health outcomes, among Australian men.
  • There is a continued need for tailored programs to address discrepancies in social connectedness among Australian males experiencing functional difficulty and/or disability. Initiatives might include improving access to assistive technology and transport, purposeful design of accommodation, and approaches using digital platforms (e.g. social media).Similarly, there is a need to facilitate opportunities for men with functional difficulty or disability to enter and remain in the workforce.

Quinn, B., Prattley, J., Rowland, B. (Eds.). (2021). Social connectedness among Australian males. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.