Fostering Engagement

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?

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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6 Responses to Fostering Engagement

  1. Hyrum says:

    So for me the money quote is “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.”

    That’s so true for me. As a white male Christian, I’ve become the antithesis of the common definitions of diversity. Further, in a society which embraces victimhood, it is difficult not to remember that large groups of people see me as part of the ‘oppressing’ group. On a one-on-one basis, these stereotypes evaporate. But it takes trust to get there – and I’m not sure it’s worth the cost right now. Maybe once the kids are older, and I’ve settled down in my local community (within the HOA) more.

  2. David says:

    I didn’t really talk about that portion of the cause of our disengagement here, but I read an article that goes into more depth on that a month ago, and the day before that article came out I talked briefly about the same problem. For myself I think that issue is largely connected to the fact that people are less inclined to put down roots – whether it’s a cause or a consequence of our lack of roots would make an interesting discussion.

  3. Jason Black says:

    This sounds like a real opportunity for the rising generations. I moved into my neighborhood at the ripe old age of 25, and within a few short months was asked to serve as an executive board member of our neighborhood association. I’ve since been asked several times to serve as president. The reason: nobody else seemed to want the job, but I was visibly active (attending meetings, voicing opinions, etc.). Even if I were to stay only 3-5 years in my home, the mobility issue wouldn’t necessarily keep me from participating. The very problems described above make sinking roots in a meaningful way take a lot less time.

    If younger and younger individuals realize that they don’t have to wait for age, experience and reputation to provide them opportunities for community involvement and even influence, then the trends can be reversed.

  4. David says:

    That’s a very good point Jason. The fact that the level of engagement has decreased opens greater opportunities for those who are interested in participating civically – that gives me hope.

  5. Reach Upward says:

    I’m not sure the turning single-sex organizations into co-ed organizations works universally. I’ve had some experience in nations where the Scouts have become co-ed (instead of having Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts). The quality of the program has diminished substantially, and after 20 years the numbers involved have dropped dramatically.

    The author I quoted discussed one adult organization that has increased its numbers by going co-ed. But he also says that the organization is still failing to pull in younger members, so that it will eventually see declining membership as well. Going co-ed has only pushed the decline out a few years.

  6. David says:

    I was trying to be diplomatic there (“vague” might be a better term) and not appear to suggest that we should just dump existing organizations in favor of new ones. Changing and organization from single-sex to coed is not a simple undertaking, nor is it guaranteed to be successful. I noticed the numbers from the article you cited about the Kiwanis membership after they opened membership to women.

    So my less careful position might be stated as – I believe that we can counter the discomfort with single-sex organizations by building coed civic organizations to accomplish similar purposes to what the existing (shrinking) organizations had previously set out to accomplish.

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