Why all they want is to be left alone with the box

August 10, 2001

Apathy about politics and the community in the US is being echoed in the UK. Michael Young explores disengagement.

Robert Putnam is a Harvard professor of public policy who has made Bowling Alone a critical success in the United States, so much so that the book is already being referred to quite often on this side of the Atlantic as well. His issue - people's disengagement from civic life - is not one just for the US. He refers to the disengagement as the loss of social capital, being the human relationships that are the invisible glue of society. He has had the same kind of acclaim as a whole genre of books deploring the state of America. Putnam is in direct line of descent from David Riesman's Lonely Crowd , Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society and J. K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society .

Perhaps he has even more to say to Britain than such other writers, especially after the miserable level of voting in our general election of 2001. We are in the same boat as America, where voting levels in all kinds of elections have been falling steadily decade after decade. Putnam does not stop with voting. His book is an extraordinary catalogue of the many ways in which Americans have become disengaged from each other. Putnam could have disappeared under the mass of information he has collected over the years. Luckily, it seems he was saved by his wife as they worked together to order the material, not at Harvard but over five years of hard work at his home at Frost Pond, New Hampshire (shades of Thoreau). He was fortunate she was a librarian and they drew on her previous experience "to catalogue the tens of thousands of documents, manuscripts, reports and clippings that the project accumulated".

Americans no longer frequent bowling alleys to bowl together in local leagues. More and more the aisles are full of individuals playing on their own. Putnam sees this story being repeated everywhere. People of all racial groups do not attend the meetings of parent-teacher associations nearly as much as they did. They do not play bridge with each other. They seldom have dinner parties, go to book circles, union meetings or the mutual organisations that used to be so prominent in America - such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks or the Grand Army of the Republic or the Knights of Columbus - or write to their congressmen, to editors or to their local councillors or volunteer or engage in any community project whatsoever. People have apparently retreated from the collective life.

Earlier in the 20th century it was all different. Communities were abuzz. As Putnam puts it: "For the first two-thirds of the 20th century a powerful tide bore USA into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago - silently, without warning - that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our community over the last third of the century."

Why? Putnam devotes a good part of the book to his answer. The pressures of time and money are a factor. There is less part-time work. More families have dual careers. Younger, more educated women have less free time. Then there is the automobile. By 1990, the US had more cars than drivers. In fact, "American adults spend 72 minutes every day behind the wheel". This is more than twice as much time as average American parents spend with their kids. Most of the drivers drive alone as well as bowl alone.

But for Putnam, the villain of the piece is television. Between 1965 and 1995 people generally gained six hours in leisure a week and spent almost all six watching the TV. He quotes another writer, J. H. Kunstler: "The American house has been TV-centred for three generations, and the life of the house correspondingly turns inward, away from whatever occurs beyond its four walls. (TV rooms are called 'family rooms' in builders' lingo. A friend who is an architect explained to me: 'People don't want to admit that what the family does together is watch TV.') At the same time the television is the family's chief connection with the outside world. The physical envelope of the home itself no longer connects their lives to the outside in any active way; rather, it seals them off from it. The outside world has become an abstraction filtered through television, just as the weather is an abstraction filtered through air conditioning."

Even within the family, people can be divided. Husband and wife spend three or four times as many hours watching television together as they spend talking to each other. Half of all Americans watch television while eating dinner and nearly one-third during breakfast and lunch. Television viewing is more and more done by people on their own. Among children aged eight to 18, less than 5 per cent of this viewing is with their parents, and more than one-third is entirely alone. The children prefer to "channel surf" from programme to programme and to "graze" rather than follow a single narrative. Even the grazing can be of more interest than what is happening in the house, particularly if everyone else is glued not to society but to their own set.

Putnam sums it up: "People (half of the population) who say that TV is their 'primary form of entertainment' volunteer and work on community projects less often, attend fewer dinner parties and fewer club meetings, spend less time with friends, entertain at home less, picnic less, are less interested in politics, give blood less often, invite friends less regularly, make fewer long-distance calls, send fewer greeting cards, and less email, and experience more road rage than demographically matched people who differ only in saying that TV is not their primary form of entertainment".

He has a lot to say by way of explanation. But even so, I think he misses some important bits of the jigsaw. He says very little about family life except for its domination by television, and nothing about the extended family, having this neglect in common with most other students of society. It could be that, contrary to the general trend, there are more links with members of extended families than there used to be. Is there another way of explaining the very large numbers of grandchildren who are living with their grandparents, as revealed by the US Census Bureau, which has at least asked questions about the extended family in a way that unfortunately our census does not? He says little about informal friendships. People may have fewer friends but they can for that reason form more intense relationships. Putnam says very little about the influence of schools, which encourage people to compete with each other more than they encourage cooperation.

Above all, he says next to nothing about globalisation. Decisions affecting all of us are made by multinationals, by media kings and queens and by governments agreeing or not agreeing between themselves on topics that are difficult for lay people to understand. Citizens can easily feel powerless in this complex world. The power appears to be reserved for an elite that has been puffed up by the education system and is all beyond ordinary comprehension. Better to relax in front of the box.

There has been no such compilation as this for Britain, so we cannot compare ourselves in any detail. But it seems to me likely that Britain has suffered from the same kind of withdrawal, and not just from politics. There is enough evidence to provoke something of the same kind of anxiety that has pervaded Frost Pond for so long. Putnam, in his dry prose, sometimes seems to be harking back to Margaret Thatcher when she said there was no such thing as society and to be contemplating the slow death of a civilisation that is not confined to his country even though, as in so many ways, the US may be ahead of (or behind?) us and Europe more generally. Maybe in Europe we just have the time to save ourselves. In the American states that took in large numbers of Scandinavian immigrants, Putnam points out, there is more civic participation.

Lord Young is senior research fellow, Institute of Community Studies, London.

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