Working, Voting, and Bowling Alone

It’s hard not to read the morning newspapers or watch the evening news and not see evidence that the fabric of our nation is coming unraveled. The seventh from the last word in our Pledge of Allegiance is “indivisible,” but we seem to be as badly divided as at any time since the Civil War. Volatility, instability, and rootlessness seem to be all around us. More people than in previous generations seem to have lost their moorings.

Think about the institutions that once helped foster stability: religion, party affiliation, marriage, and jobs. A study of the American religious landscape based on a poll of more than 100,000 Americans was released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute. It showed that the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated has roughly tripled since the early 1990s. Fully 24 percent defined themselves as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular,” three times as many who characterized themselves this way in the 1980s.

While most people used to identify themselves as Democrat or Republican, that’s no longer the case. A Gallup poll conducted in September showed that 40 percent of American adults classify themselves as independents, compared to 30 percent as Democrats and 29 percent as Republicans. Affiliation with a party meant a framework of beliefs. To be sure, each party accommodated a diversity of views, but members shared a loose ideology. Now the electorate is more fragmented and changeable. As a political analyst, I have trouble understanding how a substantial number of counties and communities could vote twice for Barack Obama and then flip to Donald Trump.

The marriage rate has been in a decline for decades, though interestingly the divorce rate seems to have leveled off or declined slightly in the last few years. But marriage has historically been seen as a stabilizing force in people’s lives and certainly better for raising children. More people are just choosing not to marry, whether they live alone or with someone else, though the increase in gay marriage may mitigate this trend some.

While previous generations were slow to change jobs and employers, Americans jump from job to job with alacrity today, though statisticians disagree about the frequency and even what constitutes a job change. But the days when people stayed with the same employer for decades are pretty much over, another sign of volatility in our society. People today tend to identify less with what they do and where they do it. Their universe of coworkers—who share on-the-job experiences, satisfactions, and frustrations—has shrunk commensurately, further diminishing the social cohesion that marked us all as Americans.

In his 2000 bestseller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam wrote about how Americans have become increasingly disengaged from politics. Fewer vote, attend public meetings, and work in campaigns.

He also pointed to a decline in membership in many civic organizations—the Knights of Columbus, B’nai Brith, PTAs, the League of Women Voters, women’s clubs, Scouts, labor unions, Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Kiwanis, and military veterans’ groups. The book title came from the finding that while bowling leagues were in decline, bowling was up — a sign that social interaction was giving way to solitary pursuits.

The sense of community, of belonging to something larger than one’s self, seems to have given way to a rootlessness. It could be that social media such as Facebook give people a sense of community and allow them to stay in contact with old friends, but these disembodied connections are different than the face-to-face experiences of going out to dinner or to a ballgame or, for that matter, bowling together. And how do Americans make new friends whose company they enjoy and whose character they trust? A circle of friends consisting of high school classmates is pretty limiting.

Where does this increasing solitariness lead us? As someone who has ADHD (self-diagnosed), I can say in a non-pejorative spirit that our society has shorter attention spans, less focus, and less continuity. In my opinion, it is not a healthy trend for the country, and it may well be happening around the world (which is above my pay grade). But it is something to think about—and to worry about.