I have been contemplating the implications found in Scott Hinrichs’ Civically Disengaged ever since he posted it. I have been concerned about the lack of civic involvement by most people for a long time because I am convinced that it is a cause for many of our social problems – especially our increasingly divisive political environment which only makes all our problems seem larger and discourages individual participation at all levels of government.
Scott has identified some causes of our 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.
Finding out where we are and how we got here is nice, but the operative question is always – where do we go from here? I’d love to have some solid answers but lacking that I’ll share my own ideas. The causes illustrated above are:
- We have become uncomfortable with single-sex organizations
- Men have less free time to devote to pursuits outside of the home and family
- People are far more mobile than ever before
- Television discourages interaction
I am convinced that the discomfort with single-sex organizations could be easily overcome by building new coed organizations to replace the old single-gender groups.
The issue of having less free time is partially a matter of priorities. If people viewed civic groups as being more relevant and important than other things that compete for their time they would chose to be engaged. This may be a marketing problem as civic organizations attempt to show people how they can make a positive impact in the community. It might also be an issue of the organizations themselves adapting to a new cultural setting. It may be that we need to build organizations that are better suited to our current society or such civic organizations might already exist and we just need to give them time to gain the influence that has existed in older civic organizations.
I think the issue of mobility is the most crucial and subtle deterrent to civic engagement. It does take time to sink our roots somewhere and we do ourselves a disservice if we wait to sink those roots. Imagine how much more engaged someone would be civically if they settle down at 25 knowing that they are going to stay put for 50 years. By 35 they can be very well established in the community and contributing. Not only that but they care much more about a place if they expect to stay there for half a century. By contrast, imagine someone who moves every 3 to 5 years from one job to another until they are 40 years old where they then stay until they go into a kind of active retirement by the age of 55. By the time this person has set down any roots they can only expect to participate civically for a very few years – if it’s even worth the effort.
As for television – by itself it is a deterrent to civic engagement, but it can be used by groups to invite engagement. While the internet might some involvement that is inferior to the engagement in real civic organizations it can also be used as a strong tool to increase involvement and communication for an organization in a way that can compensate for some of the other factors in our society that discourage engagement. For example, I can still participate with civic organizations when my company sends me to live overseas for 6 months or a year.
Scott lists many groups that have been shrinking (scouts, bowling leagues, labor unions) does anyone know of civic organizations that are growing? Does anyone else have suggestions of how to help people participate in their communities civically?