Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bowling Alone

I recently read the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. I remember hearing about this book many years ago, sometime after it was released in 1999. I then ran across it again during graduate school, but didn't have the opportunity to read it then. Last summer, while I was up north, I stumbled upon this copy at one of my very favorite shops: the Little Apple used book shop on main street in Walker. I snatched it up, excited to do my part by buying it at this tiny retailer in the middle of Lake Country. It sat on my bookshelf until recently, when I had the chance to read it.

This book is about the rising trend of social disengagement observed during the last 20+ years of the 20th century.  Of course, because that's when it was written, it focused on current events. Now, 12 years later, it's somewhat out of date, which is the only reason I wouldn't recommend it. When I look at the turmoil that has faced our country since this book was written, including September 11th, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ever-multiplying importance of the Internet, and the financial collapse, it's hard to know whether the author would draw the same conclusions today. More challenging for the reader is to know whether the same conclusions could be derived from the data, even if all of the social metrics were the same, given the different state of our world today as compared to 1999.

That said, this book has several redeeming qualities for those who want to read an out-of-date current events book. Most importantly, I think the author does a broad survey of the ways in which people engage in society, including church, politics, clubs, socializing with friends, serving on juries (which I didn't, by the way!). While there may be different ways of connecting to society now than there were in 1999, I think the survey in this book provides a good place to start. There is also lots of historical information, especially regarding voluntary associations and clubs, that is all still accurate though not updated. I certainly learned more about the roles of community organizations in the earlier 20th century than I had ever hoped to know. I think the most interesting aspect of this book is that the author draws a bunch of conclusions about Generation X as the "youngest" people on his radar - since the book is primarily focused on social engagement among adults. While we Millenials, or Gen Y, or whatever you want to call it were alive when the book was written and its conclusions were developed, we were not included in the analysis. This provides readers with an interesting opportunity to decide for themselves whether Gen Y is even less engaged than its predecessors.

What's my answer to that question? Hard to say yet. The author points out that there is naturally a peak in engagement when people become parents: parents are more likely to attend church, coach children's sports teams, or get involved in local school organizations than non-parents. Many members of Gen Y aren't parents yet - and anecdotal evidence suggests that many are delaying parenthood even further than they otherwise might because of the instability created by the economic situation. In fact, to me, the economic situation is the reason I'm unsure as to whether the trends observed in the past will continue. The author points out that part-time employment has been found to be superior to both full-time employment and non-employment (unemployment or working inside the home) to stimulate community service. Are members of Gen Y who can't find  full-time work using their extra time to serve? Are young workers less inclined to take on responsibilities outside of work for fear that it will distract focus from the job that was difficult to get in the first place? Or, are those who are unemployed or underemployed making ever greater use of "networking" opportunities to engage with other professionals, whether in social or service opportunities? I don't know, but I do hope that this work will be updated at some point in the future with the answers to these questions.

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