NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is American Society Becoming More Solitary?

October 4, 2000

It is one of the ironies of modern life that while cell phones, the Internet and other modern communications make it easier to link up, Americans are far less connected to those around them than were their parents or certainly their grandparents. That's the argument made in the book, "Bowling Alone," by Harvard University public policy professor Robert Putnam.

The title comes from Putnam's observation that participation in league bowling dropped 40 percent between 1980 and 1993. Putnam believes the post-war generations are less community-oriented than their parents and grandparents -- and that they're more materialistic, less patriotic, more cynical and less politically involved.

By contrast, there was a flowering of civil society in the U.S. from near the end of the 19th century to the 1920s. Most of the national voluntary institutions that exist today in the U.S. were founded during that period -- such as fraternal organizations (Moose, Elk, etc.)with insurance and welfare benefits for members.

Across the social spectrum, Putnam finds Americans are more solitary and less involved in society than ever before.

  • Membership in the PTA has dropped 60 percent since 1960, even as school enrollment has grown by more than five million.
  • People don't vote, join fraternal organizations, attend public meetings on school or town affairs or even entertain at home as frequently as they did a generation ago.
  • Between 1976 and 1997, families with children ages 8 to 17 spent less time together vacationing, watching television, attending religious services or just "sitting and talking."
  • Since the mid-'50s, union membership has dropped from 32.5 percent of the work force to 14.1 percent.

Putnam argues that what he calls "social capital" -- the bonds between people -- are as important to a productive society as an educated work force and efficient factories. The more we work with and trust each other, the more we can build strong civic institutions.

Source: Liz Stevens, "Party of One," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 30, 2000; Sage Stossel, "Lonely In America," Atlantic Unbound, September 21, 2000


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