Why was the generation born in the 1920s and 1930s the last of the joiners?by Robert Putnam / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
For the last year or so I have been wrestling with a difficult mystery. It concerns the strange disappearance of social capital and civic engagement in the US. By “social capital” I mean features of social life-networks, norms, and trust-that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.
Although I am not yet sure that I have solved the mystery, I have assembled evidence which clarifies what happened. An important clue involves differences among generations. Americans who came of age during the Depression and the second world war have been far more deeply engaged in the life of their communities than the generations which followed them. The passing of this “long civic generation” appears to be an important cause of the decline of our civic life. This discovery does not in itself crack the case, but when combined with other data it points to one suspect, against whom I shall presently bring an indictment.
Evidence for the decline of social capital and civic engagement comes from a number of independent sources. Surveys of average Americans in 1965, 1975 and 1985, in which they recorded every single activity during a day-so-called “time-budget” studies-indicate that since 1965 time spent on informal socialising and visiting has gone down (perhaps by one quarter) and time devoted to clubs and organisations is down even more sharply (by roughly half). Membership records of such diverse organisations as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labour unions, and even bowling leagues show that participation in many conventional voluntary associations has declined by about 25 per cent to 50 per cent over the last two to three decades. Surveys show sharp declines in many measures of collective political participation, including attending a rally or speech (down by 36 per cent between 1973 and 1993), attending a meeting about town or school affairs (down by 39 per cent), or working for a political party (down by 56 per cent). Some of the most reliable evidence about trends comes from the US national opinion research centre in Chicago, the General Social Survey (GSS), conducted nearly every year for more than two decades. The GSS shows, at all levels of education and among both men and women, a drop since 1974 of roughly one quarter in group membership and a drop since 1972 of roughly one third in social trust. Slumping membership…