This article is a review of the book Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 2000), hardcover, 540 pages, ISBN 0-684-83283-6. This book looks at trends in civic engagement, why there has been a decline in non-profit organizations, what the effects of this are, and what is to be done. Aquarium clubs are not mentioned specifically, but the content of the book is in fact fully applicable to the hobby, and certainly should be seriously considered by those of us concerned about the future of fish clubs.
WE ARE NOT ALONE.
Professor Putnam starts off by pointing out that the decline of clubs and social groups is not specific to one or a even few activities, be they stamp collecting, science fiction fandom, or aquarium keeping. He illustrates this with examples from the Glenn Valley, Pennsylvania Bridge Club (died in the 1990s after 50 years), the Roanoke, Virginia, NAACP chapter (down from 2,500 members to 57), and many others. The rate of youth participation in sports relative to population has been stagnant or declining since the 1960s.
Some statistics can be misleading. The number of non-profit organizations has doubled since 1968, but very few are mass-membership organizations. Average membership size for a group is now one-tenth of what it was. Many are actually advocacy groups, not social groups. Most only require a cheque to pay the annual dues, and are basically mailing lists, such as Greenpeace, rather than genuine social groups such as the Rotary. The members of advocacy groups never meet each other and have no long-term commitment to the group. As Putnam writes, “Probing further reveals that mail-order ‘membership’ turns out to be a poor measure of civic engagement.“. Not only the quantity but also the quality of the membership has been affected: “ … the more demanding the form of involvement, actual attendance as compared to formal membership, for example, the greater the decline.“.
Chapter-based national organizations that use face-to-face relationships to recruit memberships have low but steady memberships. Organizations using high-pressure direct mail recruiting, where members write a cheque and never meet others, have an annual membership turnover as much as 85% (Greenpeace, 1990 to 1998) despite their higher totals. The renewal rate of the National Rifle Association is 25%. Says Putnam of passive mass-membership groups: “Citizenship by proxy is an oxymoron.“.
It should be noted that while a number of non-profits are apparently increasing their membership, their relative ratio as a percentage of population is declining. Passive activities, such as spectatorship at professional sports games, visiting museums, and attending concerts have increased, but playing in a local league, going to a club meeting, or learning a musical instrument have declined.
Putnam bases his thesis on the concept of social capital, the idea that social networks have value. He writes: “A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.“. Social capital benefits the individual in job hunting, companionship, or a helping hand, but it also benefits the community at large with the spillover effect to non-participants.
There are two types of social change. Intracohort changes are basically fads within a particular generation, such as Pokemon among children or SUVs among yuppies. This type of change comes and goes quickly. Intercohort changes occur gradually as the tastes of one generation are swamped by the next. Rock-and-roll, for example, drowning out jazz and swing.
Volunteering is more common in small towns than big cities. It peaks in the age bracket of late 30s to early 40s, a reflection of the fact that most people only volunteer for youth activities while their children are young. Volunteering for charitable activities is most likely in people with active social networks such as local clubs (not just paying dues but actual attendance at meetings). Putnam writes: “When volunteers are asked how they happened to get involved in their particular activity, the most common answer is, “Someone asked me.”“.
One result of the decline of social capital is a trend to paid help in supposedly volunteer organizations. Instead of a local party worker contacting a voter during an election campaign, it is now a call-center operator from the other side of the continent. “Financial capital, the wherewithal for mass marketing, has steadily replaced social capital, that is, grassroots citizen networks, as the coin of the realm.“, writes Putnam.
This decline sets off a chain reaction and affects even those who still want to volunteer. There has been a more rapid decline in collective activities such as public meetings, rather than individual activities such as writing letters to the editor. Those who want to take collective action can’t find enough people to work with, and give up in despair.
Less-involved people pay less attention to the news, whether newspapers or television. This is generational. 60% to 70% of people born before World War Two follow the daily news on television or newspapers. Only 40% of the Baby Boomers (born between 1945 and 1965) do, and about 30% of Generation X (born late 1970s to 1980s).
ARRESTING THE USUAL SUSPECTS.
Putnam devotes a section of his book to possible reasons for the decline in civic engagement. He uses hard data to demolish some of these reasons. Time and lack of money are often offered as an excuse for not volunteering. Contrary to popular belief, the average person has about the same amount of free time as 25 years ago. What appears to have changed is that instead of blocks of leisure time that everybody had in common (evenings and weekends), we now work different shifts and have free time chopped up inconveniently. This is not the villain of the story though, as studies show people busy at work also do more volunteer work, illustrating the truth of the saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy man. Further, the decline in social activity is just as steep for those who feel least harried for time as those who feel most harried.
Neither is the decline in social capital related to the ongoing decrease in real incomes (after inflation) which started in 1973. The decline began before the decrease, and is just as bad for financially secure people as those worrying about being laid off.
Women who work outside the home are less socially active, but this only mirrors the trend for other groups. Divorce rates and working moms cannot be blamed, since the decline began before those two increased. Again, neither can the heavy hand of government or big business (“Walmart wiped out the small businessmen who belonged to the social clubs”) be blamed.
Our mobile society cannot be condemned either. People who move house frequently tend to have less involvement in their community. Mobility rates have actually gone down from 20% of the population in 1950 to 16% today. Two-thirds of the people today are now homeowners.
While urbanites are less likely to become involved than small town dwellers, the majority of urbanization in North America was completed by the 1960s. What did change over the past few decades since was that more commuters now travel from suburb to suburb rather than suburb to city core. Putnam remarks that: “ … each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10%“. People with long commutes don’t want to go out of the house evenings and weekends. Their friends and co-workers are scattered over a wide area, not in a well-defined closely-knit neighborhood of easy access.
Since the decline of social capital began in the 1960s, the Internet cannot be used as a scapegoat. Internet users, when sorted by social class and education, are indistinguishable from non-users for civic engagement. In other words, nerds are nerds, whether on-line or off-line.
Previous civic activity was boosted periodically by wars, of which World War Two was the greatest in impact. People of that generation (80% of men born in the 1920s served in the military) got civic mindedness because everyone was in it together.
Television for entertainment has increased with each new generation, and is now 4 hours per day for the average viewer. It pulls people into their houses and away from social activities. It is one of the ringleaders in the decline of social capital. Putnam notes that: “The more fully that any given generation was exposed to television in its formative years, the lower its civic engagement during adulthood.“. Stamp collectors, for example, fondly hope that kids started on the hobby will come back as adults in later years, but that will not happen as it did with the pre-WW2 generation. If those kids do come back, it will be as lone wolf collectors, not club members.
BLAME IT ON THE BOOMERS.
The Baby Boomers are not as active as their parents in social groups. As the population ages, the older volunteer workers are dying out while there are fewer younger ones. There has been a 40% decline in social group membership since 1973, regardless of race, gender, education level, or geography. Putnam remarks that: “ … virtually all of this decline is attributable to generational replacement: members of any given generation are investing as much time in organizational activity as they ever were, but each successive generation is investing less.”
The problem is lack of younger members, which seems to have begun in the late 1960s. Normally the bulk of volunteers are middle-aged, as they have the time, experience, and money for civic involvement. This led people to expect a surge of volunteerism in the 1980s from the Baby Boomers. The surge never happened.
Baby Boomers do not volunteer as much as the 1910 to 1940 generation do, and this carries on regardless of what age the Boomers are. That is, a Boomer is not likely to volunteer after retirement if he didn’t in his 40s. [For the record, I am a Boomer, born in 1955.]
If age determined volunteerism, then social clubs should have begun an increase in the 1980s as the Boomers reached their 40s and 50s. Instead, as Putnam writes: “ … each generation that has reached adulthood since the 1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than its immediate predecessor. … This generational math (coupled with the civic differences among the successive generations) is the single most important explanation for the collapse of civic engagement over the last several decades. … Thus a generational analysis leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that the national slump in civic engagement is likely to continue.”
An appendix of 40 different organizations from a variety of hobbies and causes displays the trends of the past century. The graphs confirm the burst of social capital after World War Two and its decline in the late 1960s and 1970s.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Putnam considers that methods of restoring social capital must be different than before: “Our challenge now is to re-invent the twenty-first century equivalent of the Boy Scouts … What we create may well look nothing like the institutions Progressives invented a century ago … we should be wary of straining our civic inventiveness through conventional filters.”
The old methods will not work on the younger generations, no matter how successful in the past. Putnam does not provide specific methods to overcome the problem. He can’t, he says, because the new world being born will have to invent things we can’t conceive of, we who are of previous generations.
IN WHICH I INTERJECT MY OPINION.
I have until now not been too worried about the future of the organizations I belong to. I always relied on the idea that as Boomers reached retirement age, they would begin to volunteer. But the masses of hard data and graphs, sorted by generation, have shaken my confidence that my generation of Boomers and the subsequent Generation X will reverse the trend. Putnam has presented convincing evidence that doing things the way they have been done is a recipe for continued decline.
Stamp collectors say that kids will come back to the hobby as adults. While some do, their numbers are too few to sustain stamp clubs. Aquarium keepers fondly believe that their kids will carry on the hobby, but I wonder why in my twenty years in this hobby I have only seen one or two return out of dozens.
That the next generation will do things differently is shown by one blind spot that Putnam unwittingly illustrates himself. He discusses how the decline in voters in elections might be reversed. This decline is confined to post-WW2 voters, for the war generation still vote as much as they ever did. The younger generation, however, do not believe that voting or petitions or writing letters to elected politicians will make a difference. The politicians are bought off by multinationals and slick lobbyists in three-piece suits. The younger people are just as involved politically as their elders, but they do not register in the statistics because they have shifted to direct action. And direct action works. The World Trade Organization never paid any attention to traditional lobbyists from environmental or social movements, but the Battle In Seattle stopped them cold and forced them to put those concerns on the agenda. Like it or not, and rant against anarchists if you wish, but that is how politics of the future will be done by a generation that has no faith in elected representatives.
What of stamp clubs and aquarium keeping and science fiction fandom? Many organizations are learning now that their new recruits are coming from their Web sites, not the shopping mall displays or annual shows. The idea of regular monthly meetings may have to change if everyone is working shift and can’t come out on first Wednesdays of the month. Do we offer IRC chats instead? (If you don’t know what an IRC chat is, ask the nearest teenager.)
Anecdotal evidence that your club is booming must give way to the general statistics. Before you write in that your club has increased and is doing well, ask yourself the following questions.
1) Is the increase due to the activity and enthusiasm of one or a few members? If so, what happens when they burn out a few years from now or get transferred out of town?
2) Is the increase absolute or relative? If your town has grown by 10% in population but your club has only grown 5%, that is a warning.
3) What is the distribution of generations in your club? Divide your membership into the WW2 generation, the Boomers, and Generation X. Which generation is doing most of the actual work needed to run a club?
I don’t have answers as to how to reverse the declines, anymore than Putnam does. I agree with him that new methods of recruiting must be experimented with, and the old ways rigorously examined. Anecdotes about how it was when you were young fail to note that your memories are ancient history to the Boomers and Generation X, for whom the Boer War and the Korean War are both chapters in a boring history book they had to read in class. What is important is not how things were when you were young, but how they are to your children and grandchildren.
BUY THE BOOK.
I have only summarized a small fraction of Putnam’s work. The graphs throughout Bowling Alone will bring pause to anyone who reads it. This is one of the major works of sociology of the last few decades, not just pop psychology. Anyone concerned about the future of their hobby should be reading it. ?