As a kid, I remember seeing Fred and Barney go to their fraternal lodge meetings on the Flintstones. Our community was filled with a broad variety of groups that cheerfully did volunteer work: the local Civic League, Kiwanis, Elks, Jaycees, Shriners, Lions, Rotary and a host of others. There was a smattering of home-grown volunteer groups as well. Many of these clubs/organizations were exclusively for males or for females.
Many of the volunteer organizations that were around when I was a kid are still around today. But almost all of them have seen declining membership as well as significant aging of remaining members. It’s not just fraternal organizations that have seen declining membership; it cuts across all kinds of organizations, including bowling leagues, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and labor unions.
This phenomenon is not new. American demographer Dan Frost reported at length on this issue in 1996. Frost cites Robert Putnam (who recently made the news with his study that shows the serious impacts of diversity on society — see here) as saying that the loss of vitality of these civic organizations constitutes a serious loss of “social capital.”
Putnam notes that those born prior to 1945 were substantially more civic minded than those born after that time. He cites a general trend toward disengagement.
Why has this happened? Part of it has to do with the mass movement of women into the workforce. Americans have become uncomfortable with single-sex organizations. Although women still do most of the work at home, men have accepted many more domestic duties than their fathers did. Thus, they have less free time to devote to pursuits outside of the home and family.
The whole of our society has become less formal as people have sought out more flexibility. People are less comfortable with conformity. People of the boomer generation and younger aren’t into special handshakes, funny hats, and mandatory meetings.
Another factor is mobility. People are far more mobile than ever before. It takes time to sink roots in any new location. Increasing diversity, as Putnam’s recently released study shows, decreases interpersonal and communal trust, even among people that are most alike, resulting in people drawing inward and away from social connections. The tendency increases with population density.
Putnam says, however, that the biggest factor in civic disengagement is TV. He said that back in 1996 before many people were connected on the Internet. Going online can be far more interactive than TV. It can even lead to civic discussion and coordination. But certainly not in the same way or at the same level as involvement in traditional civic organizations.
People also have more offerings competing for their discretionary time than ever before. And people have more capacity to take advantage of those opportunities than ever before. But every such opportunity competes for a finite resource: personal free time. And by extension, that means family together time.
All of this leads to a diminution of the sense of civic responsibility that was dominant among the pre-boomer generation. Consequently, people have turned JFK’s request on its head. They continuously ask what government can do for them rather than what they can do for their country/state/city. No, that’s not quite right. They demand that government satisfy their whims rather than being pro-active in bettering their country.
Politicians respond by campaigning on expanding government, much to the delight of their constituents. And then they raise taxes to cover those expanded services, always couching the increases in terms of discretionary things. They claim it’ll only cost as much as one Big Mac a week or one can of soda pop a day. They never say that it’ll only cost two weeks of groceries or a month’s dosage of a critical medication.
Voters, too busy with other matters, often go along or aren’t informed enough to even know that taxes are being raised. Regulatory agencies get into the act by raising taxes as well in the form of fees with no debate whatsoever.
A properly functioning democratic republic requires citizens that do their civic duties. Civic disengagement ultimately leaves a political class in charge of more of our lives than we ever thought possible, and without adequate checks and balances. We need to teach citizens both the importance of doing their civic duties and how to go about doing them in every possible venue. Otherwise we bequeath a faulty legacy to the next generation.