Tuesday morning I was privileged to hear Dr. Robert Putnam, the author of “Bowling Alone,” who is considered by many to be one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He was part of the Dillon Lecture Series at Hutchinson Community College.
He addressed four questions during his speech:
1. What’s been happening to our social connections (what he calls “social capital”) over the last 40 years?
2. The answer is it has frayed. The next question is “Why?”
3. So what?
4. What can we do about it?
He spent most of the time talking about what has happened to our social capital and giving examples of how it has frayed. As he put it, “Social networks are almost magical in their effects on our lives.”
He looked at data of organizations over the last 100 years, and also at data gathered by various surveys that measured non-organizational social capitol – such as how often are we going on picnics. (5 times a year in 1950, only twice a year last year on average – down 60%)
He, of course, related all figures to a percentage of the population – how many people are doing any particular thing from the number of people available to do that activity.
He looked at 32 organizations. All of them are down 50-60%. The only time in the last century that our numbers have dipped as low as they are now is during the Great Depression. After WW2 was the biggest boon, for about 20 years. Then it started to level off and eventually head south.
He talked about religion – 1/2 of volunteering, 1/2 of donations and 1/2 of organizational memberships in this country are related to religion. That is also down.
Every indicator from church to dinner parties to getting together with family to joining a club is down 50-60% – some much more dramatically. One example he gave is playing bridge. In 1957, 40% of adults played bridge. Now, 6% of people play bridge.
1964 seems to be the watershed year – that’s when things start to go downhill.
He spoke about eating dinnner together and how this is something done in almost all cultures – as the sun goes down, people gather for dinner – but not in our culture. We’re losing this connection too. We’ve also doubled the number of people who live alone, so they can’t eat dinner with the family – there is no family.
There are multiple causes but “TV is lethal for social capital.” Those are his words – backed up by data from multiple sources. The average American watches four hours of television a day. I’m not watching my four hours, which means someone else is watching eight. He put it so eloquently when he said, “People watch Friends instead of having friends.” It’s so true. When I invite someone over and they hesitate because “fill in the blank TV show comes on at 8…” I am so disheartened. How we got to the point that people would chose a box with pictures over human contact I don’t know, but there we are. Well… I have digressed from my report. Back to that…
He said moving from farms to urban is not it because that was happening before the trend started. But, suburbs are deadly. For every 10 minutes of communting time you have, you lose 10% of your social capital. If you have 20 minutes, you lose 20%.
Women were always great at social networking, but he said that women entering the work force is not the root cause, either. Trends are down even among single men, who would not be affected by that.
He said he looked for places where these things were not true. The only people who are very connected these days are the WW2 generation. I always hear people talk about that time as when they were bonded together and there was no way to explain it if you didn’t live in it. I believe that. But now I wonder if the reason people remember it so fondly was all this connection they had with each other.
He said he’s not certain yet about the internet – it has some good points and some bad points – the jury is still out on that one.
So What? Why do we care?
Well, the single biggest predictor of a crime rate is how many people in a neighborhood know each other by their first names. Crime rates are more affected by social capital than they are by the number of cops on the beat. School test scores are more affected by parental involvement than they are by the number of teachers.
It’s also valuable in terms of money, getting jobs, etc. A chicago economist has calculated the value of your address book and determined it’s one of the most valuable things you own.
Frankly, your life depends on social capital – not only that someone will bring you soup if you’re sick. But, social isolation is the same risk factor to your health as smoking. People who join 1 group decrease their risk of dying in the next year by half. If you join 2 groups, you decrease your risk by 3/4.
There is an actual physiological reaction to being with other people. Your body generates “stress buffers,” which make it easier to fight infection.
How to Fix it?
Dr. Putnam pointed out that 100 years ago, people were in much the same situation we are right now – they had moved from farms to more urban environments, it was the industrial revolution and their lives were different – they had all kinds of gadgets that were new to them – like phones.
Because they’d moved to a more urban environment, things like barn raisings were no longer a way to connect. So, they invented a new one. Between 1890-1910, almost all of the major civic organizations we have today were created – Rotary, Lions, Kiwannis, etc. Between 1908-1913 all the major kids organizations were created – Boy Scouts, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, etc. were all created in that 5 year period.
His challenge to us was to INVENT a new way of connecting that fits our lives today. We cannot go back to the old ways so what is our new way?
A friend was sitting behind me at this and leaned over and said, “I think your studio play dates are one way.” And, they are. But, unfortunately, I’ve been trying to figure out how to address this problem for about 15 years. I’ve had more events at my house than I can count. And people are always happy to come to my house – and I’m THRILLED by that – I love having people in my house – but that idea has not spread to a single person. It has not encouraged anyone else to have a get together. So, as a way to address this problem, it’s a dismal failure, other than it addresses it for me and to a smaller degree my circle of friends in a tiny way. But, it’s not the same as a whole community having social capital.
I also have a theory – and this is not Dr. Putnam’s research – but a “Patsy Theory.” I think there’s something special about being in someone’s home. I was thinking the other day about Creative Sisterhood, and our book club, and Chicks, and none of those would have been as life changing as they are without someone opening their home.
The broader questions are: Why do we not want to open our homes? What are we doing there that we’re so afraid someone will see? Why do we not want human contact? Obviously, we do, or people would not say “yes” to invitations. So then the question becomes “Why do we not SEEK human contact?”
I’ve been thinking about this for about 15 years now and since I saw him speak, it has been in the back of my mind constantly. I’m mulling over what can be done. Obviously, many have to be involved in it.
If we keep organizations as our connection I think they’re going to have to be much “looser” and “free” and with few restrictions. I think that’s why Red Hat Society works so well and their numbers are increasing while all others are depleting. It’s fun, it’s friendship and it doesn’t have too many rules. I know that is key but I’m beginning to doubt if any of today’s traditional clubs and organizations can accept that challenge. I’m beginning to think we are going to have to create new groups that are designed for today’s lifestyle and let the old ones die. That’s very sad, but I see very little interest in change and growth among any of the “old guard” groups.