Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Club Luckless

By Allen Smalling

JULY 10, 2000: 

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster), $26, 541 pages

In the early 1960s, Barbra Streisand sang that "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world," but a new book by Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam suggests that we may be running out of luck.

"Bowling Alone" is Putnam's exhaustive look at declining connectedness between Americans during this century, especially from the 1950s to the present. As a sociologist, Putnam measures "social capital," the value of networks between people. Social capital can be formal--such as voter turnout or club memberships--or informal, as with visiting between neighbors. With very few exceptions (environmental groups, the Internet), our social capital has been dwindling for the past thirty-five-forty years.

Chapter-based organizations like the Elks or the PTA peaked in membership somewhere around 1960. Adjusted for inflation, philanthropic giving reached its high-water mark in 1964. Relative to population, labor unions, churches and professional societies all hit their peak in the late fifties, and declined, in absolute terms, starting in the sixties.

Where to lay the blame for social disengagement? The two-income family and suburban sprawl, with its high commuting times and lessened sense of place, are factors, but only minor ones, according to Putnam. Television is one factor, but the greatest is generational replacement--the World War II generation is dying out and taking its habits with it, gradually being replaced by Boomers and Gen Xers. Two-thirds of people in their 70s still consider the daily newspaper a necessity; only 30 percent of those under 30 do. (The under-30 set also watches less TV news and turns out fewer voters.)

What to do? As have other sociologists, Putnam calls for more worker-friendly job sites, more pedestrian-friendly habitats and less passive spectatorism. His most innovative turn comes when he equates today's America with the America of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era of 100 years ago--the period that spawned so many institutions that are still with us today. Perhaps it's time we created some new ones.


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