Are North Americans really becoming more isolated, less civic-minded, and less socially engaged? That’s the premise of an article, “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam, which I read many years ago. In the year 2000 it became a book. The title comes from data showing that people aren’t bowling in leagues any longer; instead they are bowling alone.
Mr. Putnam has lots of interview results to support his claims about the loss of social connections, but I’m going to challenge it anyway. Bowling lanes are disappearing as fast as certain bird species, but let’s face it, bowling has lost its cachet. However, men’s and women’s soccer leagues are growing, because kids now grow up playing soccer in schools and they want to continue playing as adults. When bowling was last popular, soccer wasn’t. People are flocking to yoga, tai chi and aerobics classes, where they get acquainted with other aficionados of the activity. While these are not team activities and people do them solo, classes fill when they’re offered.
Some civic groups may be losing members, but not all of them are endangered. The Daughters of the American Revolution may have less to do these days than they did several hundred years ago; I imagine they aren’t seeing huge membership gains. The local Rotary, however, is still a sought-after organization to join in my community.
And then we have the book clubs. If readers don’t have friends or neighbors who like to read, they can attend book groups sponsored by libraries and bookstores. Some even read non-fiction and discuss current events. Everyone I know is in at least one.
Volunteering, even if not done under the auspices of a civic organization, is still popular, especially among retirees. For every talent, interest or passion, there is a volunteer opportunity. I’m not suggesting that all organizations have as many offers of free service as they’d like, but volunteerism is going strong. High schools require community service hours and many kids earn well beyond the minimum. The goal is that this becomes the start of a long career of community service.
I’ve seen people bond in career development classes offered by the local university. I meet with classmates from my writing class more often than I see other friends, because we share a common goal and can offer advice and support.
Yes, there may be fewer mainstream church members, Lions Club joiners, and neighborhood coffee klatches now than in years past. Why? More women work, people work longer hours, there are different family structures and people are busy. And maybe fewer people vote than they did in the old days, I don’t know. But I can suggest lots of reasons for that, which have nothing to do with the loss of social connections.
Barn raising doesn’t go on these days, but Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build houses. Quilting bees are returning. Certain hobbies, leisure activities, and sports come in and go out of fashion. Bowling leagues may return, but if they don’t, new activities will replace them. Change is the natural order of things. Our lives, communities, neighborhoods, and our outlets for fun, personal growth and entertainment are not ever going to stop changing. Zumba or Bollywood aerobics anyone?