A more extended version of this article, complete with
references, appears in the Winter 1995 issue of PS, a publication of the
American Political Science Association. This work, originally delivered as the
inaugural Ithiel de Sola Pool Lecture, builds on Putnam's earlier articles, "Bowling
Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy
(January 1995) and "The Prosperous Community," TAP
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For the last year or so, I have been wrestling with
a difficult mystery. It is a classic brainteaser, with a corpus delicti, a crime
scene strewn with clues, and many potential suspects. As in all good detective
stories, however, some plausible miscreants turn out to have impeccable alibis,
and some important clues hint at portentous developments that occurred before
the curtain rose.
The mystery concerns the strange disappearance of social capital and civic
engagement in America. By "social capital," I mean features of social
life--networks, norms, and trust--that enable participants to act together more
effectively to pursue shared objectives. (Whether or not their shared goals are
praiseworthy is, of course, entirely another matter.) I use the term "civic
engagement" to refer to people's connections with the life of their
communities, not only with politics.
Although I am not yet sure that I have solved the mystery, I have assembled
evidence that clarifies what happened. An important clue, as we shall see,
involves differences among generations. Americans who came of age during the
Depression and World War II have been far more deeply engaged in the life of
their communities than the generations that have followed them. The passing of
this "long civic generation" appears to be an important proximate
cause of the decline of our civic life. This discovery does not in itself crack
the case, but when combined with other data it points strongly to one suspect
against whom I shall presently bring an indictment.
Evidence for the decline of social capital and civic engagement comes from a
number of independent sources. Surveys of average Americans in 1965, 1975, and
1985, in which they recorded every single activity during a day--so-called "time-budget"
studies--indicate that since 1965 time spent on informal socializing and
visiting is down (perhaps by one-quarter) and time devoted to clubs and
organizations is down even more sharply (by roughly half). Membership records of
such diverse organizations as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women
Voters, the Red Cross, labor unions, and even bowling leagues show that
participation in many conventional voluntary associations has declined by
roughly 25 percent to 50 percent over the last two to three decades. Surveys
show sharp declines in many measures of collective political participation,
including attending a rally or speech (off 36 percent between 1973 and 1993),
attending a meeting on town or school affairs (off 39 percent), or working for a
political party (off 56 percent).
Some of the most reliable evidence about trends comes from the General Social
Survey (GSS), conducted nearly every year for more than two decades. The GSS
demonstrates, at all levels of education and among both men and women,
a drop of roughly one-quarter in group membership
since 1974 and a drop of roughly one-third in social trust since 1972.
(Trust in political authorities, indeed in many social institutions, has also
declined sharply over the last three decades, but that is conceptually a
distinct trend.) Slumping membership has afflicted all sorts of groups, from
sports clubs and professional associations to literary discussion groups and
labor unions. Only nationality groups, hobby and garden clubs, and the catch-all
category of "other" seem to have resisted the ebbing tide. Gallup
polls report that church attendance fell by roughly 15 percent during the 1960s
and has remained at that lower level ever since, while data from the National
Opinion Research Center suggest that the decline continued during the 1970s and
1980s and by now amounts to roughly 30 percent. A more complete audit of
American social capital would need to account for apparent countertrends. Some
observers believe, for example, that support groups and neighborhood watch
groups are proliferating, and few deny that the last several decades have
witnessed explosive growth in interest groups represented in Washington. The
growth of such "mailing list" organizations as the American
Association of Retired People and the Sierra Club, although highly significant
in political (and commercial) terms, is not really a counterexample to the
supposed decline in social connectedness, however, since these are not really
associations in which members meet one another. Their members' ties are to
common symbols and ideologies, but not to each other. Similarly, although most
secondary associations are not-for-profit, most prominent nonprofits (from
Harvard University to the Ford Foundation to the Metropolitan Opera) are
bureaucracies, not secondary associations, so the growth of the "third
sector" is not tantamount to a growth in social connectedness. With due
regard to various kinds of counterevidence, I believe that the weight of
available evidence confirms that Americans today are significantly less engaged
with their communities than was true a generation ago.
Of course, American civil society is not moribund. Many good people across the
land work hard every day to keep their communities vital. Indeed, evidence
suggests that America still outranks many other countries in the degree of our
community involvement and social trust. But if we examine our lives, not our
aspirations, and if we compare ourselves not with other countries but with our
parents, the best available evidence suggests that we are less connected with
Reversing this trend depends, at least in part, on understanding the causes of
the strange malady afflicting American civic life. This is the mystery I seek to
unravel here: Why, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s and
1980s, did the fabric of American community life begin to fray? Why are more
Americans bowling alone?
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Many possible answers have been suggested for this puzzle:
- busy-ness and time pressure;
- economic hard times (or, according to alternative theories, material
- residential mobility;
- the movement of women into the paid labor force and the stresses of
- disruption of marriage and family ties;
- changes in the structure of the American economy, such as the rise of chain
stores, branch firms, and the service sector;
- the sixties (most of which actually happened in the seventies); including
- Vietnam, Watergate, and disillusion with public life; and
- the cultural revolt against authority (sex, drugs, and so on);
- growth of the welfare state;
- the civil rights revolution;
- television, the electronic revolution, and other technological changes.
The classic questions posed by a detective are means, motive, and opportunity.
A solution, even a partial one, to our mystery must pass analogous tests.
Is the proposed explanatory factor correlated with trust and civic
engagement? If not, that factor probably does not belong in the lineup. For
example, if working women turn out to be more engaged in community life than
housewives, it would be harder to attribute the downturn in community
organizations to the rise of two-career families.
Is the correlation spurious? If parents, for example, were more likely
than childless people to be joiners, that might be an important clue. However,
if the correlation between parental status and civic engagement turned out to be
entirely spurious, due to the effects of (say) age, we would have to remove the
declining birth rate from our list of suspects.
Is the proposed explanatory factor changing in the relevant way? Suppose,
for instance, that people who often move have shallower community roots. That
could be an important part of the answer to our mystery only if residential
mobility itself had risen during this period.
Is the proposed explanatory factor vulnerable to the claim that it might be
the result of civic disengagement, not the cause? For example, even
if newspaper readership were closely correlated with civic engagement across
individuals and across time, we would need to weigh the degree to which reduced
newspaper circulation is the result (not the cause) of disengagement.
Against those benchmarks, let us weigh the evidence. But first we must
acknowledge a trend that only complicates our task.
EDUCATION DEEPENS THE MYSTERY
Education is by far the strongest correlate that I have discovered of civic
engagement in all its forms, including social trust and membership in many
different types of groups. In fact, the effects of education become greater and
greater as we move up the educational ladder. The four years of education
between 14 and 18 total years have ten times more impact on trust and
membership than the first four years of formal education. This curvilinear
pattern applies to both men and women, and to all races and generations.
Sorting out just why education has such a massive effect on social
connectedness would require a book in itself. Education is in part a proxy for
social class and economic differences, but when income, social status, and
education are used together to predict trust and group membership, education
continues to be the primary influence. So, well-educated people are much more
likely to be joiners and trusters, partly because they are better off
economically, but mostly because of the skills, resources, and inclinations that
were imparted to them at home and in school.
The expansion of high schools and colleges earlier this century has had an
enormous impact on the educational composition of the adult population during
just the last two decades. Since 1972 the proportion of adults with fewer than
12 years of education has been cut in half, falling from 40 percent to 18
percent, while the proportion with more than 12 years has nearly doubled, rising
from 28 percent to 50 percent, as the generation of Americans educated around
the turn of this century (most of whom did not finish high school) died off and
were replaced by the baby boomers and their successors (most of whom attended
So here we have two facts--education boosts civic engagement sharply, and
educational levels have risen massively--that only deepen our central mystery.
By itself, the rise in educational levels should have increased social capital
during the last 20 years by 15-20 percent, even assuming that the effects of
education were merely linear. (Taking account of the curvilinear effect in
figure 1, "Education and Civic Life," the rise in trusting and joining
should have been even greater, as Americans moved up the accelerating curve.) By
contrast, however, the actual GSS figures show a net decline since the early
1970s of roughly the same magnitude (trust by about 20-25 percent, memberships
by about 15-20 percent). The relative declines in social capital are similar
within each educational category--roughly 25 percent in group memberships and
roughly 30 percent in social trust since the early 1970s, and probably even more
since the early 1960s.
While this first investigative foray leaves us more mystified than before, we
may nevertheless draw two useful conclusions. First, we need to take account of
educational differences in our exploration of other factors to be sure that we
do not confuse their effects with the consequences of education. And, second,
the mysterious disengagement of the last quarter century seems to have afflicted
all educational strata in our society, whether they have had graduate education
or did not finish high school.
MOBILITY AND SUBURBANIZATION
Many studies have found that residential stability and such related phenomena
as homeownership are associated with greater civic engagement. At an earlier
stage in this investigation I observed that "mobility, like frequent
re-potting of plants, tends to disrupt root systems, and it takes time for an
uprooted individual to put down new roots." I must now report, however,
that further inquiry fully exonerates residential mobility from any
responsibility for our fading civic engagement.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census 1995 (and earlier years) show that
rates of residential mobility have been remarkably constant over the last half
century. In fact, to the extent that there has been any change at all, both
long-distance and short-distance mobility have declined over the last five
decades. During the 1950s, 20 percent of Americans changed residence each year
and 6.9 percent annually moved across county borders; during the 1990s, the
comparable figures are 17 percent and 6.6 percent. Americans, in short, are
today slightly more rooted residentially than a generation ago. The verdict on
mobility is unequivocal: This theory is simply wrong.
But if moving itself has not eroded our social capital, what about the
possibility that we have moved to places, especially suburbs, that are less
congenial to social connectedness? In fact, social connectedness does differ by
community type, but the differences turn out to be modest and in directions that
are inconsistent with the theory.
Controlling for such characteristics as education, age, income, work status,
and race, citizens of the nation's 12 largest metropolitan areas (particularly
their central cities, but also their suburbs) are roughly 10 percent less
trusting and report 10-20 percent fewer group memberships than residents of
other cities and towns (and their suburbs). Meanwhile, residents of very small
towns and rural areas are (in accord with some hoary stereotypes) slightly more
trusting and civicly engaged than other Americans. Unsurprisingly, the
prominence of different types of groups does vary significantly by location:
Major cities have more political and nationality clubs; smaller cities more
fraternal, service, hobby, veterans', and church groups: and rural areas more
agricultural organizations. But overall rates of associational membership are
not very different.
Moreover, this pattern cannot account for our central puzzle. In the first
place, there is virtually no correlation between gains in population and losses
in social capital, either across states or across localities of different sizes.
Even taking into account the educational and social backgrounds of those who
have moved there, the suburbs have faintly higher levels of trust and civic
engagement than their respective central cities, which should have produced
growth, not decay, in social capital over the last generation. The central
point, however, is that the downtrends in trusting and joining are virtually
identical everywhere--in cities, big and small, in suburbs, in small towns, and
in the countryside.
Of course, Evanston is not Levittown is not Sun City. The evidence available
does not allow us to determine whether different types of suburban living have
different effects on civic connections and social trust. However, these data do
rule out the thesis that suburbanization per se has caused the erosion of
America's social capital. Both where we live and how long we've lived there
matter for social capital, but neither explains why it is eroding everywhere.
PRESSURES OF TIME AND MONEY
Americans certainly feel busier now than a generation ago: The
proportion of us who report feeling "always rushed" jumped by half
between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s. Probably the most obvious suspect
behind our tendency to drop out of community affairs is pervasive busy-ness. And
lurking nearby in the shadows are economic pressures so much discussed nowadays,
from job insecurity to declining real wages.
Yet, however culpable busy-ness and economic insecurity may appear at first
glance, it is hard to find incriminating evidence. In the first place,
time-budget studies do not confirm the thesis that Americans are, on average,
working longer than a generation ago. On the contrary, a new study by John
Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey of the University of Maryland reports a five hour
per week gain in free time for the average American between 1965 and
1985, due partly to reduced time spent on housework and partly to earlier
retirement. Their claim that Americans have more leisure time now than several
decades ago is, to be sure, contested by other observers, notably Juliet Schor,
who in her 1991 book The Overworked American reports evidence that work
hours are lengthening, especially for women.
But whatever the resolution of that controversy, other data call into question
whether longer hours at work lead to lessened involvement in civic life or
reduced social trust. Results from the GSS show that employed people belong to
somewhat more groups than those outside the paid labor force. Even more striking
is the fact that among workers, longer hours are linked to more civic
engagement. The patterns among men and women on this score are not identical:
Women who work part-time appear to be somewhat more civicly engaged and socially
trusting than either those who work full-time or those who do not work outside
the home at all--an intriguing anomaly, though not relevant to our basic puzzle,
since female part-time workers constitute a relatively small fraction of the
American population, and the fraction is growing, up from about 8 percent to
about 10 percent between the early 1970s and early 1990s.
But what do workaholics do less? Robinson reports that, unsurprisingly, people
who spend more time at work do feel more rushed, and these harried souls do
spend less time eating, sleeping, reading books, engaging in hobbies, and just
doing nothing. Compared to the rest of the population, they also spend a lot
less time watching television, almost 30 percent less. However, they do not
spend less time on organizational activity. In short, those who work longer
forego Nightline, but not the Kiwanis club; ER, but not the Red
So hard work does not prevent civic engagement. Moreover, the
nationwide falloff in joining and trusting is perfectly mirrored among full-time
workers, among part-time workers, and among those outside the paid labor force.
So if people are dropping out of community life, long hours do not seem to be
If time pressure is not the culprit, how about financial pressures? It is true
that people with lower incomes and those who feel financially strapped are
somewhat less engaged in community life and somewhat less trusting than those
who are better off, even holding education constant. On the other hand, the
downtrends in social trust and civic engagement are visible among people of all
incomes, with no sign whatever that they are concentrated among those who have
borne the brunt of the economic distress of the last two decades. Quite the
contrary, the declines in engagement and trust are actually somewhat greater
among the more affluent segments of the American public than among the poor and
middle-income wage-earners. Moreover, personal financial satisfaction is wholly
uncorrelated with civic engagement and social trust. In short, neither objective
nor subjective economic well-being has inoculated Americans against the virus of
civic disengagement; if anything, affluence has slightly exacerbated the
problem. Poverty and economic inequality are dreadful, growing problems for
America, but they are not the villains of this piece.
THE CHANGING ROLE OF WOMEN
Most of our mothers were housewives, and most of them invested heavily in
social capital formation--a jargony way of referring to untold unpaid hours in
church suppers, PTA meetings, neighborhood coffee klatches, and visits to
friends and relatives. The movement of women out of the home and into the paid
labor force is probably the most portentous social change of the last half
century. However welcome and overdue the feminist revolution may be, it is hard
to believe that it has had no impact on social connectedness. Could this be the
primary reason for the decline of social capital over the last generation?
Some patterns in the survey evidence seem to support this claim. All things
considered, women belong to somewhat fewer voluntary associations than men do.
On the other hand, time-budget studies suggest that women spend more time on
those groups and more time in informal social connecting than men. Although the
absolute declines in joining and trusting are approximately equivalent among men
and women, the relative declines are somewhat greater among women. Controlling
for education, memberships among men have declined at a rate of about 10-15
percent a decade, compared to about 20-25 percent a decade for women. The
time-budget data, too, strongly suggest that the decline in organizational
involvement in recent years is concentrated among women. These sorts of facts,
coupled with the obvious transformation in the professional role of women over
this same period, led me in previous work to suppose that the emergence of
two-career families might be the most important single factor in the erosion of
As we saw earlier, however, work status itself seems to have little net impact
on group membership or on trust. Housewives belong to different types of groups
than do working women (more PTAs, for example, and fewer professional
associations), but in the aggregate working women are actually members of
slightly more voluntary associations (though housewives, according to Robinson
and Godbey, spend more time on them). Moreover, the overall declines in civic
engagement are somewhat greater among housewives than among employed women.
Comparison of time-budget data between 1965 and 1985 seems to show that employed
women as a group are actually spending more time on organizations than before,
while housewives are spending less. This same study suggests that the major
decline in informal socializing since 1965 has also been concentrated among
housewives. The central fact, of course, is that the overall trends are down for
all categories of women (and for men, too, even bachelors), but the figures
suggest that women who work full-time actually may have been more resistant to
the slump than those who do not.
Thus, although women appear to have borne a disproportionate share of the
decline in civic engagement over the last two decades, it is not easy to find
any micro-level data that tie that fact directly to their entry into the labor
force. Of course, women who have chosen to enter the workforce doubtless differ
in many respects from women who have chosen to stay home. Perhaps one reason
that community involvement appears to be rising among working women and
declining among housewives is that precisely the sort of women who, in an
earlier era, were most involved with their communities have been
disproportionately likely to enter the workforce, thus lowering the average
level of civic engagement among the remaining homemakers and raising the average
among women in the workplace.
No doubt the movement of women into the workplace over the last generation has
changed the types of organizations to which they belong. Contrary to my
own earlier speculations, however, I can find little evidence to support the
hypothesis that this movement has played a major role in the net reduction of
social connectedness and civic engagement. On the other hand, I have no clear
alternative explanation for the fact that the relative declines are greater
among women, both those who work outside the home and those who don't, than
among men. Since this evidence is at best circumstantial, perhaps the best
interim judgment here is the famous Scots verdict: not proven.
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY
Another widely discussed social trend that more or less coincides with the
downturn in civic engagement is the breakdown of the traditional family
unit--mom, dad, and the kids. Since the family itself is, by some accounts, a
key form of social capital, perhaps its eclipse is part of the explanation for
the reduction in joining and trusting in the wider community. What does the
First of all, evidence of the loosening of family bonds is unequivocal. In
addition to the century-long increase in divorce rates (which accelerated from
the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s and then leveled off), and the more recent
increase in single-parent families, the incidence of one-person households has
more than doubled since 1950, in part because of the rising number of widows
living alone. The net effect of all these changes, as reflected in the General
Social Survey, is that the proportion of all American adults currently unmarried
climbed from 28 percent in 1974 to 48 percent in 1994.
Second, married men and women do rank somewhat higher on both our measures of
social capital. That is, controlling for education, age, race, and so on, single
people--both men and women, divorced, separated, and never married--are
significantly less trusting and less engaged civicly than married people.
(Multivariate analysis hints that one major reason why divorce lowers
connectedness is that it lowers family income, which in turn reduces civic
engagement.) Roughly speaking, married men and women are about a third more
trusting and belong to about 15-25 percent more groups than comparable single
men and women. (Widows and widowers are more like married people than single
people in this comparison.)
In short, successful marriage, especially if the family includes children, is
statistically associated with greater social trust and civic engagement. Thus,
some part of the decline in both trust and membership is tied to the decline in
marriage. To be sure, the direction of causality behind this correlation may be
complicated, since it is conceivable that loners and paranoids are harder to
live with. If so, divorce may in some degree be the consequence, not the cause,
of lower social capital. Probably the most reasonable summary of these arrays of
data, however, is that the decline in successful marriage is a significant,
though modest part of the reason for declining trust and lower group membership.
On the other hand, changes in family structure cannot be a major part of our
story, since the overall declines in joining and trusting are substantial even
among the happily married. My own verdict (based in part on additional evidence
to be introduced later) is that the disintegration of marriage is probably an
accessory to the crime, but not the major villain of the piece.
THE RISE OF THE WELFARE STATE
Circumstantial evidence, particularly the timing of the downturn in social
connectedness, has suggested to some observers that an important cause--perhaps
even the cause--is big government and the growth of the welfare state.
By "crowding out" private initiative, it is argued, state intervention
has subverted civil society.
Some government policies have almost certainly had the effect of destroying
social capital. For example, the so-called "slum clearance" policies
of the 1950s and 1960s replaced physical capital, but destroyed social capital,
by disrupting existing community ties. It is also conceivable that certain
social expenditures and tax policies may have created disincentives for
civic-minded philanthropy. On the other hand, it is much harder to see which
government policies might be responsible for the decline in bowling leagues and
literary clubs. Some community institutions sponsored, organized, or subsidized
by government, such as National Service, agricultural extension programs, and
Head Start, may enhance trust and social capital. Which effect prevails needs to
be resolved with evidence, not ideology.
One empirical approach to this issue is to examine differences in civic
engagement and public policy across different political jurisdictions to see
whether enlarged government leads to shriveled social capital. Among the U.S.
states, however, differences in social capital appear essentially uncorrelated
with various measures of welfare spending or government size. Citizens in
free-spending states are no less trusting or engaged than citizens in frugal
Cross-national comparison can also shed light on this question. Among nineteen
member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) for which data on social trust and group membership are available from
the 1990-1991 World Values Survey, these indicators of social capital are, if
anything, positively correlated with the size of the state. This simple
bivariate analysis, of course, cannot tell us whether social connectedness
encourages welfare spending, whether the welfare state fosters civic engagement,
or whether both are the result of some other unmeasured factor(s). Even this
simple finding, however, is not easily reconciled with the notion that big
government undermines social capital.
RACE AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS REVOLUTION
Some observers have noted that the decline in social connectedness began just
after the successes of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. That
coincidence has suggested the possibility of a kind of sociological "white
flight," as legal desegregation of civic life led whites to withdraw from
The erosion of social capital, however, has affected all races. In fact, during
the 1980s the downturns in both joining and trusting were even greater among
African Americans (and other racial minorities) than among the white majority.
This fact is inconsistent with the thesis that "white flight" is a
significant cause of civic disengagement, since black Americans have been
dropping out of religious and civic organizations at least as rapidly as white
Americans. Even more important, the pace of disengagement among whites has been
uncorrelated with racial intolerance or support for segregation. Avowedly racist
or segregationist whites have been no quicker to drop out of community
organizations during this period than more tolerant whites.
This evidence is far from conclusive, of course, but it does shift the burden
of proof onto those who believe that racism is a primary explanation for growing
civic disengagement over the last quarter century. This evidence also suggests
that reversing the civil rights gains of the last thirty years would do nothing
to reverse the social capital losses.
Our efforts thus far to identify the major sources of civic disengagement have
been singularly unfruitful. In all our statistical analyses, however, one
factor, second only to education, stands out as a predictor of all forms of
civic engagement and trust. That factor is age. Older people belong to more
organizations than young people, and they are less misanthropic. Older Americans
also vote more often and read newspapers more frequently, two other forms of
civic engagement closely correlated with joining and trusting.
"Civic Engagement by Age" shows the basic pattern. Civic involvement
appears to rise more or less steadily from early adulthood toward a plateau in
middle age, from which it declines only late in life. This humpback pattern
seems naturally to represent the arc of life's engagements. That, at least, was
how I first interpreted the data. But that would be a fundamental misreading of
the most important clue in our whole whodunit. HREF="#fig-2"> VSPACE="5" HSPACE="5" ALIGN="center" WIDTH="255" ALT=" [FIGURE 2] " SRC="../images/24putnf2.gif">
Evidence from the General Social Survey enables us to follow individual cohorts
as they age. If the rising lines in the figure indeed represent deepening civic
engagement with age, we should be able to track this same deepening engagement
as we follow, for example, the first of the baby boomers, born in 1947, as they
aged from 25 in 1972 (the first year of the GSS) to 47 in 1994 (the latest year
available). Startlingly, however, such an analysis, repeated for successive
birth cohorts, produces virtually no evidence of such life cycle changes in
civic engagement. In fact, as various generations moved through the period
between 1972 and 1994, their levels of trust and membership more often fell than
rose, reflecting a more or less simultaneous decline in civic engagement among
young and old alike, particularly during the second half of the 1980s. But that
downtrend obviously cannot explain why, throughout the period, older Americans
were always more trusting and engaged. In fact, the only reliable life cycle
effect visible in these data is a withdrawal from civic engagement very late in
life, as we move through our eighties.
The central paradox posed by these patterns is this: Older people are
consistently more engaged and trusting than younger people, yet we do not become
more engaged and trusting as we age. What's going on here?
Time and age are notoriously ambiguous in their effects on social behavior.
Social scientists have learned to distinguish three contrasting phenomena:
Life cycle effects represent differences attributable to stage of life.
In this case individuals change as they age, but since the effects of aging are,
in the aggregate, neatly balanced by the "demographic metabolism" of
births and deaths, life cycle effects produce no aggregate change. Everyone's
close-focus eyesight worsens as we age, but the aggregate demand for reading
glasses changes little.
Period effects affect all people who live through a given era,
regardless of their age. Period effects can produce both individual and
aggregate change, often quickly and enduringly, without any age-related
differences. The sharp drop in trust in government between 1965 and 1975, for
example, was almost entirely this sort of period effect, as Americans of all
ages changed their minds about their leaders' trustworthiness. Similarly, as
just noted, a modest portion of the decline in social capital during the 1980s
appears to be a period effect.
Generational effects affect all people born at the same time. Like life
cycle effects (and unlike typical period effects), generational effects show up
as disparities among age groups at a single point in time, but like period
effects (and unlike life cycle effects) generational effects produce real social
change, as successive generations, enduringly "imprinted" with
divergent outlooks, enter and leave the population. In pure generational
effects, no individual ever changes, but society does.
Returning to our conundrum, how could older people today be more engaged and
trusting, if they did not become more engaged and trusting as they aged? The key
to this paradox, as David Butler and Donald Stokes observed in another context,
is to ask, not how old people are, but when they were young. The
figure "Social Capital and Civic Engagement by Generation," addresses
this reformulated question, displaying various measures of civic engagement
according to the respondents' year of birth. HREF="#fig-3"> VSPACE="5" HSPACE="5" ALIGN="center" WIDTH="255" ALT=" [FIGURE 3] " SRC="../images/24putnf3.gif">
THE LONG CIVIC GENERATION
In effect, the figure on the bottom of page 43 lines up Americans from left to
right according to their date of birth, beginning with those born in the last
third of the nineteenth century and continuing across to the generation of their
great-grandchildren, born in the last third of the twentieth century. As we
begin moving along this queue from left to right--from those raised around the
turn of the century to those raised during the Roaring Twenties, and so on--we
find relatively high and unevenly rising levels of civic engagement and social
trust. Then rather abruptly, however, we encounter signs of reduced community
involvement, starting with men and women born in the early 1930s. Remarkably,
this downward trend in joining, trusting, voting, and newspaper reading
continues almost uninterruptedly for nearly 40 years. The trajectories for the
various different indicators of civic engagement are strikingly parallel: Each
shows a high, sometimes rising plateau for people born and raised during the
first third of the century; each shows a turning point in the cohorts around
1930; and each then shows a more or less constant decline down to the cohorts
born during the 1960s.
By any standard, these intergenerational differences are extraordinary.
Compare, for example, the generation born in the early 1920s with the generation
of their grandchildren born in the late 1960s. Controlling for educational
disparities, members of the generation born in the 1920s belong to almost twice
as many civic associations as those born in the late 1960s (roughly 1.9
memberships per capita, compared to roughly 1.1 memberships per capita). The
grandparents are more than twice as likely to trust other people (50-60 percent
compared with 25 percent for the grandchildren). They vote at nearly double the
rate of the most recent cohorts (roughly 75 percent compared with 40-45
percent), and they read newspapers almost three times as often (70-80 percent
read a paper daily compared with 25-30 percent). And bear in mind that we have
found no evidence that the youngest generation will come to match their
grandparents' higher levels of civic engagement as they grow older.
Thus, read not as life cycle effects, but rather as generational effects, the
age-related patterns in our data suggest a radically different interpretation of
our basic puzzle. Deciphered with this key, the figure on page 43 depicts a long
"civic" generation, born roughly between 1910 and 1940, a broad group
of people substantially more engaged in community affairs and substantially more
trusting than those younger than they. (Members of the 1910-1940 generation also
seem more civic than their elders, at least to judge by the outlooks of
relatively few men and women born in the late nineteenth century who appeared in
our samples.) The culminating point of this civic generation is the cohort born
in 1925-1930, who attended grade school during the Great Depression, spent World
War II in high school (or on the battlefield), first voted in 1948 or 1952, set
up housekeeping in the 1950s, and watched their first television when they were
in their late twenties. Since national surveying began, this cohort has been
exceptionally civic: voting more, joining more, reading newspapers more,
trusting more. As the distinguished sociologist Charles Tilly (born in 1928)
said in commenting on an early version of this essay, "We are the last
To help in interpreting the historical contexts within which these successive
generations of Americans matured, the figure also indicates the decade within
which each cohort came of age. Thus, we can see that each generation that
reached adulthood since the 1940s has been less engaged in community affairs
than its immediate predecessor.
Further confirmation of this generational interpretation comes from a
comparison of the two parallel lines that chart responses to an identical
question about social trust, posed first in the National Election Studies
(mainly between 1964 and 1976) and then in the General Social Survey between
1972 and 1994. If the greater trust expressed by Americans born earlier in the
century represented a life cycle effect, then the graph from the GSS surveys
(conducted when these cohorts were, on average, 10 years older) should have been
some distance above the NES line. In fact, the GSS line lies about 5-10 percent
below the NES line. That downward shift almost surely represents a period effect
that depressed social trust among all cohorts during the 1980s. That downward
period effect, however, is substantially more modest than the large generational
differences already noted.
In short, the most parsimonious interpretation of the age-related differences
in civic engagement is that they represent a powerful reduction in civic
engagement among Americans who came of age in the decades after World War II, as
well as some modest additional disengagement that affected all cohorts during
the 1980s. These patterns hint that being raised after World War II was a quite
different experience from being raised before that watershed. It is as though
the postwar generations were exposed to some mysterious X-ray that permanently
and increasingly rendered them less likely to connect with the community.
Whatever that force might have been, it--rather than anything that happened
during the 1970s and 1980s--accounts for most of the civic disengagement that
lies at the core of our mystery.
But if this reinterpretation of our puzzle is correct, why did it take so long
for the effects of that mysterious X-ray to become manifest? If the underlying
causes of civic disengagement can be traced to the 1940s and 1950s, why did the
effects become conspicuous in PTA meetings and Masonic lodges, in the volunteer
lists of the Red Cross and the Boy Scouts, and in polling stations and church
pews and bowling alleys across the land only during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s?
The visible effects of this generational disengagement were delayed by two
important factors. First, the postwar boom in college enrollments raised levels
of civic engagement, offsetting the generational trends. As Warren E. Miller and
J. Merrill Shanks observe in their as yet unpublished book, The American
Voter Reconsidered, the postwar expansion of educational opportunities "forestalled
a cataclysmic drop" in voting turnout, and it had a similar delaying effect
on civic disengagement more generally.
Second, the full effects of generational developments generally appear several
decades after their onset, because it takes that long for a given generation to
become numerically dominant in the adult population. Only after the mid-1960s
did significant numbers of the "post-civic generation" reach
adulthood, supplanting older, more civic cohorts. The figure "The Rise and
Decline of a Civic Generation" illustrates this generational accounting.
The long civic generation born between 1910 and 1940 reached its zenith in 1960,
when it comprised 62 percent of those who chose between John Kennedy and Richard
Nixon. By the time that Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, that
cohort's share in the electorate had been cut precisely in half. Conversely,
over the last two decades (from 1974 to 1994) boomers and X-ers (that is,
Americans born after 1946) have grown as a fraction of the adult population from
24 percent to 60 percent.
In short, the very decades that have seen a national deterioration in social
capital are the same decades during which the numerical dominance of a trusting
and civic generation has been replaced by the dominion of "post-civic"
cohorts. Moreover, although the long civic generation has enjoyed unprecedented
life expectancy, allowing its members to contribute more than their share to
American social capital in recent decades, they are now passing from the scene.
Even the youngest members of that generation will reach retirement age within
the next few years. Thus, a generational analysis leads almost inevitably to the
conclusion that the national slump in trust and engagement is likely to
continue, regardless of whether the more modest "period effect"
depression of the 1980s continues.
OUR PRIME SUSPECT
To say that civic disengagement in contemporary America is in large measure
generational merely reformulates our central puzzle. We now know that much of
the cause of our lonely bowling probably dates to the 1940s and 1950s, rather
than to the 1960s and 1970s. What could have been the mysterious anticivic "X-ray"
that affected Americans who came of age after World War II and whose effects
progressively deepened at least into the 1970s?
Our new formulation of the puzzle opens the possibility that the zeitgeist of
national unity, patriotism, and shared sacrifice that culminated in 1945 might
have reinforced civic-mindedness. On the other hand, it is hard to assign any
consistent role to the Cold War and the Bomb, since the anticivic trend appears
to have deepened steadily from the 1940s to the 1970s, in no obvious harmony
with the rhythms of world affairs. Nor is it easy to construct an interpretation
of the data on generational differences in which the cultural vicissitudes of
the sixties could play a significant role. Neither can economic adversity or
affluence easily be tied to the generational decline in civic engagement, since
the slump seems to have affected in equal measure those who came of age in the
placid fifties, the booming sixties, and the busted seventies.
I have discovered only one prominent suspect against whom circumstantial
evidence can be mounted, and in this case, it turns out, some directly
incriminating evidence has also turned up. This is not the occasion to lay out
the full case for the prosecution, nor to review rebuttal evidence for the
defense, but I want to present evidence that justifies indictment.
The culprit is television.
First, the timing fits. The long civic generation was the last cohort of
Americans to grow up without television, for television flashed into American
society like lightning in the 1950s. In 1950 barely 10 percent of American homes
had television sets, but by 1959, 90 percent did, probably the fastest diffusion
of a major technological innovation ever recorded. The reverberations from this
lightning bolt continued for decades, as viewing hours grew by 17-20 percent
during the 1960s and by an additional 7-8 percent during the 1970s. In the early
years, TV watching was concentrated among the less educated sectors of the
population, but during the 1970s the viewing time of the more educated sectors
of the population began to converge upward. Television viewing increases with
age, particularly upon retirement, but each generation since the introduction of
television has begun its life cycle at a higher starting point. By 1995 viewing
per TV household was more than 50 percent higher than it had been in the 1950s.
Most studies estimate that the average American now watches roughly four hours
per day (excluding periods in which television is merely playing in the
background). Even a more conservative estimate of three hours means that
television absorbs 40 percent of the average American's free time, an increase
of about one-third since 1965. Moreover, multiple sets have proliferated: By the
late 1980s three-quarters of all U.S. homes had more than one set, and these
numbers too are rising steadily, allowing ever more private viewing. Robinson
and Godbey are surely right to conclude that "television is the 800-pound
gorilla of leisure time." This massive change in the way Americans spend
their days and nights occurred precisely during the years of generational civic
Evidence of a link between the arrival of television and the erosion of social
connections is, however, not merely circumstantial. The links between civic
engagement and television viewing can be instructively compared with the links
between civic engagement and newspaper reading. The basic contrast is
straightforward: Newspaper reading is associated with high social capital, TV
viewing with low social capital.
Controlling for education, income, age, race, place of residence, work status,
and gender, TV viewing is strongly and negatively related to social trust and
group membership, whereas the same correlations with newspaper reading are
positive. Within every educational category, heavy readers are avid joiners,
whereas heavy viewers are more likely to be loners. In fact, more detailed
analysis suggests that heavy TV watching is one important reason why
less educated people are less engaged in the life of their communities.
Controlling for differential TV exposure significantly reduces the correlation
between education and engagement.
Viewing and reading are themselves uncorrelated--some people do lots of both,
some do little of either--but "pure readers" (that is, people who
watch less TV than average and read more newspapers than average) belong to 76
percent more civic organizations than "pure viewers" (controlling for
education, as always). Precisely the same pattern applies to other indicators of
civic engagement, including social trust and voting turnout. "Pure readers,"
for example, are 55 percent more trusting than "pure viewers."
In other words, each hour spent viewing television is associated with less
social trust and less group membership, while each hour reading a newspaper is
associated with more. An increase in television viewing of the magnitude that
the U.S. has experienced in the last four decades might directly account for as
much as one-quarter to one- half of the total drop in social capital, even
without taking into account, for example, the indirect effects of television
viewing on newspaper readership or the cumulative effects of lifetime viewing
hours. Newspaper circulation (per household) has dropped by more than half since
its peak in 1947. To be sure, it is not clear which way the tie between
newspaper reading and civic involvement works, since disengagement might itself
dampen one's interest in community news. But the two trends are clearly linked.
HOW MIGHT TV DESTROY SOCIAL CAPITAL?
Time displacement. Even though there are only 24 hours in everyone's day,
most forms of social and media participation are positively correlated. People
who listen to lots of classical music are more likely, not less likely, than
others to attend Cubs games. Television is the principal exception to this
generalization--the only leisure activity that seems to inhibit participation
outside the home. TV watching comes at the expense of nearly every social
activity outside the home, especially social gatherings and informal
conversations. TV viewers are homebodies.
Most studies that report a negative correlation between television watching and
community involvement (see figure "The TV Connection") are ambiguous
with respect to causality, because they merely compare different individuals at
a single time. However, one important quasi-experimental study of the
introduction of television in three Canadian towns found the same pattern at the
aggregate level across time. A major effect of television's arrival was the
reduction in participation in social, recreational, and community activities
among people of all ages. In short, television privatizes our leisure time.
Effects on the outlooks of viewers. An impressive body of literature
suggests that heavy watchers of TV are unusually skeptical about the benevolence
of other people--overestimating crime rates, for example. This body of
literature has generated much debate about the underlying causal patterns, with
skeptics suggesting that misanthropy may foster couch-potato behavior rather
than the reverse. While awaiting better experimental evidence, however, a
reasonable interim judgment is that heavy television watching may well increase
pessimism about human nature. Perhaps too, as social critics have long argued,
both the medium and the message have more basic effects on our ways of
interacting with the world and with one another. Television may induce
passivity, as Neil Postman has claimed.
Effects on children. TV consumes an extraordinary part of children's
lives, about 40 hours per week on average. Viewing is especially high among
pre-adolescents, but it remains high among younger adolescents: Time-budget
studies suggest that among youngsters aged 9 to 14 television consumes as much
time as all other discretionary activities combined, including playing, hobbies,
clubs, outdoor activities, informal visiting, and just hanging out. The effects
of television on childhood socialization have, of course, been hotly debated for
more than three decades. The most reasonable conclusion from a welter of
sometimes conflicting results appears to be that heavy television watching
probably increases aggressiveness (although perhaps not actual violence), that
it probably reduces school achievement, and that it is statistically associated
with "psychosocial malfunctioning," although how much of this effect
is self-selection and how much causal remains much debated. The evidence is, as
I have said, not yet enough to convict, but the defense has a lot of explaining
More than two decades ago, just as the first signs
of disengagement were beginning to appear in American politics, the political
scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool observed that the central issue would be--it was
then too soon to judge, as he rightly noted--whether the development represented
a temporary change in the weather or a more enduring change in the climate. It
now appears that much of the change whose initial signs he spotted did in fact
reflect a climatic shift.
Moreover, just as the erosion of the ozone layer was detected only many years
after the proliferation of the chlorofluorocarbons that caused it, so too the
erosion of America's social capital became visible only several decades after
the underlying process had begun. Like Minerva's owl that flies at dusk, we come
to appreciate how important the long civic generation has been to American
community life just as its members are retiring. Unless America experiences a
dramatic upward boost in civic engagement (a favorable "period effect")
in the next few years, Americans in 2010 will join, trust, and vote even less
than we do today.
In an astonishingly prescient book, Technologies without Borders,
published in 1991 after his death, Pool concluded that the electronic revolution
in communications technology was the first major technological advance in
centuries that would have a profoundly decentralizing and fragmenting effect on
society and culture. He hoped that the result might be "community without
contiguity." As a classic liberal, he welcomed the benefits of
technological change for individual freedom, and in part, I share that
enthusiasm. Those of us who bemoan the decline of community in contemporary
America need to be sensitive to the liberating gains achieved during the same
decades. We need to avoid an uncritical nostalgia for the fifties. On the other
hand, some of the same freedom-friendly technologies whose rise Pool predicted
may indeed be undermining our connections with one another and with our
communities. Pool defended what he called "soft technological determinism"
because he recognized that social values cans condition the effects of
technology. This perspective invites us not merely to consider how technology is
privatizing our lives--if, as it seems to me, it is--but to ask whether we like
the result, and if not, what we might do about it. Those are questions we
should, of course, be asking together, not alone.
Figure 1."Education and Civic Life" shows a strong
correlation between social trust and group membership on the one hand and and
years of education on the other.
Figure 2."Civic Engagements by Age (education controlled)"
shows civic engagement to increase with age.
Figure 3."Social Capital and Civic Engagement by Generation
(education controlled)" shows an overall decline in social capital and
civic engagement in the age cohorts that turned 18 after the 1940s.
Figure 4. "The Rise and Decline of a Civic Generation"
shows that the civically-engaged generation born between 1911 and 1940 (and
its sub-cohort born between 1921 and 1935) was at its greatest numerical
concentration in 1960.
Figure 5. "The TV Connection" shows that group membership
tends to decline as television viewing increases among those having twelve or
more years of education.
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