Commentary: Change for better, or worse?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beaon, Feb. 24, 2012 - Christened by The Economist as a year of “seismic” events, 1962 was pivotal in many ways. The Cuban missile crisis took the world close to the brink of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. John Glenn orbited the earth, boosting the space program and morale. Adolph Eichmann was hanged in Israel bringing some closure to a shameful chapter in human history. Marilyn Monroe died of still mysterious causes. And Telstar opened a new era of information dissemination when it transmitted TV images across the Atlantic.
The 1960s opened the floodgates to social change in race relations and in gender issues. We may still be far from the ideal, but we’ve come quite a long way. The '60s also mark the onset of a technological revolution that revolutionized not only the machines we use today, but the landscape of communication and human interaction.
How society progressed over the past half-century provides alternative views of our future.
“Fifty years ago,” writes David Brooks in the New York Times, “America was groupy. … Today, individuals have more freedom.” This freedom is evidenced by many trends. Today individuals are delaying marriage. There are more births to unwed mothers, but now those mothers are single women in higher income brackets. And workers are more prone to change jobs often. In some sense, it is freedom from the confines that personal relationships create.
Over the past 50 years we have become more connected, more informed. Facebook widens our group of acquaintances. The Internet provides information with only a click. News now comes from multiple sources. We are free from relying on a handful of news outlets — or the government.
Brooks, and others, view such freedoms as positive developments. And they are, in many respects. Charles Murray his most recent book, “Coming Apart,” provides as less sanguine take on the socioeconomic trends of the past 50 years. The downside of increased individual freedom is less reliance on traditional social networks, such as family, neighborhood or church.
Technology reduces the need to engage in personal, face-to-face relationships. Shopping online raises the cost of venturing forth to the shopping mall or the local store. We are no longer reliant on and therefore do not use social networks close to home. How well do you know your neighbors, the folks in the house several doors up the street? Would you feel comfortable asking them if your 4-year old could stay with them while you run an unexpected errand? Neighborhoods have become less “neighborly.” They are geographically contingent domiciles where individuals of similar income, race and social strata live.
As we have become more atomistic, we no longer join fraternal organizations, such as the Shriners, Elks or Job’s Daughters, as we once did. Many younger people may not even know that such groups exist. Why join such social groups if my social network is online? What Murray calls “social capital,” captured by measures of neighborliness and civic engagement by the populace, has declined.
Such a decline, Murray suggests, may explain other observed changes in our social behavior. Consider some trends. Voter turnout in presidential elections is lower today than 50 years ago. Membership in school PTA is down significantly. Scores on surveys of trustworthiness and helpfulness of others are half of what they were several decades ago. And, of course, fewer families eat dinner together.
There are many reasons for these trends, not all of them bad. The question that looms on the horizon is how the decline in the structure that ties families, neighborhoods and towns together will affect our reliance on “outsiders” to provide the social safety net. The slow, but continuous increase in the government’s provision of an increasing myriad of social services mirrors the decline in social capital.
How such trends affect the next half-century is the crucial issue at hand. If the qualities that shaped the social psyche and spirit that propelled us to our current standard of living diminish significantly, are we destined to look like the European societies and economies of today? We could face a worse outcome, but couldn’t it be better?