11. Social Connections

Around 9 out of 10 individuals in OECD countries report having relatives or friends who can help them in times of need, ranging from 78% in Greece, to 98% in Iceland (Figure 11.2). The OECD average level in 2016-18 is almost unchanged from 2010-12. However, the share of the population who feel supported fell in Greece (by nearly 6 percentage points), Poland (-5) and Germany (-4), while over the same time period it rose by more than 4 percentage points in Italy and Estonia, and by 5 points or more in Portugal, Mexico, Latvia, Lithuania and Turkey.

Time spent in social interactions considers the number of hours per week spent interacting with family and friends as a primary activity (i.e. it excludes interactions that occur alongside other focal activities such as paid work, caring or studying). Across the OECD, people aged 15 or more spend, on average, 6 hours per week interacting with family and friends (Figure 11.3). This ranges from 2 hours per week in Japan, and around 4 hours in Luxembourg, Hungary and Estonia, to above 7 hours in Italy, New Zealand Turkey and the Netherlands, and more than 9 hours in Austria. Changes in time use since 2005 can be assessed for just seven OECD countries: Belgium, Canada, Italy, Japan, Korea, Turkey and the United States. Over time, average weekly time spent in social interactions has fallen by around half an hour in Canada, Italy and the United States, and by little more than 40 minutes in Belgium.

Satisfaction with personal relationships provides a measure of the perceived quality of social connections. Across the OECD countries with available data, people are generally satisfied with the quality of their personal relations, reporting an average rating (on a 0-10 scale) of 8.1. Cross-country variation spans a fairly limited range, with national averages ranging from just above 7 in Greece to 8.6 in Switzerland, Ireland, Mexico, Austria and Slovenia (Figure 11.4).

Since 2013, average satisfaction with relationships has increased slightly, but this masks diverging patterns across countries – for example, gains of 0.3 scale points or more in Spain, Mexico, Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Estonia, and losses of 0.3 scale points in Latvia, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Despite the relatively high average levels of satisfaction with personal relationships in OECD countries, around 10% of people rate their satisfaction at 5 or below (on a 0-10 scale). This proportion ranges from around 5% in Finland, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Ireland, to above 15% in Hungary, Lithuania and Turkey, and almost 30% in Greece (Figure 11.5).

There are no substantial gender differences in social support, or in satisfaction with personal relationships. However, large gender inequalities emerge in time spent in social interactions (Figure 11.6). In the average OECD country, women spend 40 minutes more than men per week in social interactions (6 hours and 20 minutes vs. 5 hours and 40 minutes for men, respectively). The gap in favour of women is especially large in Norway (around 2 hours 20 minutes per week), Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom (all above 1 hour). Conversely, men spend more time socialising than women in Italy (8 hours 20 minutes per week for men vs. 6 hours 40 minutes for women), and to a smaller extent in Spain and Greece.

In most OECD countries, perceived social support declines with age. In Korea, Greece, Chile, Latvia and Portugal, the age gradient in social support is particularly steep (Figure 11.7). For instance, 93% of people aged 15-29 in Korea report having relatives or friends they can count on in times of need, compared to only 63% of those aged 50 or over. By contrast, in France, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, gaps in social support across age groups are small.

In the 14 countries with available data, young people (aged 15-29) spend, on average, nearly 2 hours 20 minutes per week more in social interactions than middle-aged people (30-49) (Figure 11.8). The gap is small in Norway and Turkey, but widens in Italy, Ireland and Spain, where young people spend between 3 hours 50 minutes and 5 hours 20 minutes more in social interactions than the middle-aged. On average, in the countries with available data, middle-aged (30-49 years) and older people (aged 50+) tend to spend similar amount of time socialising, although divergent cross-country patterns exist. For example, in Finland, Italy and Norway people aged 30-49 allocate more time to social interactions than those aged 50 and over. By contrast, in Ireland older people spend nearly 1 hour and 40 minutes more per week socialising than those aged 30-49, with this difference being as large as 2 hours 20 minutes in Turkey.

Despite large age gaps in both social support and time spent in social interactions, age differences in satisfaction with social relationships are comparatively small. For the average OECD country, satisfaction with social relationships is 8.3 for people aged 16-29 (ranging from 7.4 in Greece to 8.9 in Slovenia); 8 for the age group 30-49 (ranging from 7.1 in Greece to 8.5 in Austria and Slovenia); and 8 for people aged 50 or above (ranging from 7 in Greece to 8.8 in Sweden).

For the average OECD country, the proportion of people with only a primary education reporting they have someone to count on in times of need is 9 percentage points lower than for those with a tertiary education (Figure 11.9). In Switzerland, New Zealand and Iceland, the gap is below 2 percentage points, but it exceeds 15 percentage points in Korea, Greece, Turkey and Chile.

Similarly, in the average OECD country, people with a primary education are generally less satisfied with their personal relationships than their more educated peers (Figure 11.10). On average, the difference between people with tertiary and primary education is around 0.5 points (on a 0-10 scale), with the gap being larger for countries with low levels of satisfaction with personal relationships (e.g. Lithuania, Hungary and Italy). By contrast, in Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, where the average satisfaction with personal relationships is high, gaps by education are small.


[1] Fleischer, L., C. Smith and C. Viac (2016), “A Review of General Social Surveys”, OECD Statistics Working Papers, No. 2016/9, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/bb54d16f-en.

[4] OECD (2019), How’s Life in the Digital Age?: Opportunities and Risks of the Digital Transformation for People’s Well-being, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264311800-en.

[2] UNECE (2013), Guidelines for Harmonizing Time-Use Surveys, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Geneva, http://unece.org/index.php?id=34496.

[3] UNSD (2005), Guide to Producing Statistics on Time Use: Measuring Paid and Unpaid Work, United Nations Statistics Division, New York, http://unstats.un.org/unsd/pubs/gesgrid.asp?id=347 (accessed on 12 December 2019).

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