There is a letter to the editor in this week’s Journal from Ronald Tucker about the need for new members in the Winder Kiwanis Club. His letter echoes an issue that has been happening in Winder and across the nation for the past 30 years — that is, the slow disengagement from traditional civic life that is taking place in American culture.
This is an interesting issue and one that merits further discussion. As a former member of two civic clubs and the past president of one, this is an issue that I’ve seen up close and have a little perspective in discussing.
First, some background.
America has long been noted for the variety of its clubs and organizations that bring citizens together. In his 1830s travel around the U.S., Alexis de Tocqueville noted the influence of the young nation’s religious, fraternal, and civic groups, organizations through which citizens became part of the fabric of their community and nation.
Many of our fraternal groups have deep roots back to the 19th Century and even earlier, but others like Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis rose as a result of the early 20th Century’s Progressive Era thinking. These, and many other organizations, brought business people together and focused on charitable work in their communities and the world.
But these groups had other effects as well, such as networking for professionals and in building links between various business interests. Historically in many small towns, these organizations served to bring together “the wealthiest and most prominent men in the community.”
Although the Great Depression caused some civic organizations to flounder, many were formed in the late 1930s and served a key role during the WWII era. Although many men were away at war, these civic organizations helped with countless kinds of home front war efforts during that time.
Post-WWII was a time of growth for many civic organizations. Men who came home from the war were grateful for having survived the calamity and many were motivated to become involved in community-building efforts. And post-war growth fueled a boom in small businesses in towns all across America, the proprietors of which anchored local civic groups.
But by the mid to late 1960s, many civic organizations had reached their zenith. Times had begun to change with the rise of the Civil Rights, feminist and youth counter-culture movements, all of which challenged the kind of “establishment” that these mostly white middle-aged male civic clubs represented.
By the late 1970s, many of these organizations had begun to wane as bringing in new younger members became more and more difficult and older members passed away. By the 1990s, the decline of civic organizations was clear. It was the focus of Robert Putnam’s 1995 essay and his critically acclaimed book published in 2000, “Bowling Alone.”
There is a lot of debate among social scientists about why civic organizations waned. Some blame the growth of suburbs and the fact that many people now travel a long way to work and thus have less time for civic involvement (a situation that some civic groups responded to by switching to early morning breakfast meetings in a bid to keep commuters involved.)
The decline of locally owned businesses from the growth of big box stores also made the pool of local business people and potential civic club members smaller. Some also believe that the rise of the welfare state in the 1960s supplanted and undermined the kinds of private efforts that civic clubs had done in the past.
And of course, there has been the impact of television and of the Internet and social media sites, all of which drain our time away from other pursuits.
Those things have undoubtedly contributed to the decline of traditional civic organizations, but I think the basic issue runs even deeper. Not only have many civic organizations seen a fall in membership, other community organizations have also been pressured by declining participation. Unions, professional groups and even some churches have suffered from membership loss. Even where membership numbers have remained stable, there appears to be less engagement and direct involvement.
While all of the issues discussed above contributed to this decline, I think the most fundamental reason stems from the changing nature of our family structure. That, more than anything else, has changed how Americans now choose to be engaged with their communities.
As women entered the workforce in greater numbers in the 1960s, family dynamics began to shift. Domestic duties began to put pressure on both dads and moms and that compressed the time they had for outside interests. And the role of men in family life shifted, too. The era of “Dad” as a remote authority-figure-bread-winner changed in the 1970s as younger men became more directly engaged in the lives of their children. Fathers got involved in roles that had been reserved for mothers in an earlier era.
Not all of that was bad for traditional civic clubs. The growth of women in various professions and their desire to network and become part of a larger community saved a lot of local civic groups that were traditionally men-only clubs. If the various civic organizations had not opened their doors to women in the 1980s and 1990s, many small town civic clubs would no longer exist today. Female membership was the salvation for thousands of these organizations. (I say that having two decades ago nominated the first female member in an area Rotary Club, a move that was very controversial at the time.)
The other, perhaps bigger change that had an impact on traditional civic clubs is the rise in the number of youth sports organizations and the increased intensity of those sports. Once confined to a few sports with limited seasons, the rise in youth athletics has exploded over the last 30 years.
Local recreation programs have flourished by offering a multitude of new sports and year-around “travel ball” has became very popular. That growth was also impacted in the 1970s by Title 9, which greatly increased the number of sporting events for young girls to participate in.
This explosion in youth sports required more volunteer coaches and support people, a reality that put tremendous pressure on parents — men and women in their 30s and 40s — who in an earlier era were prime candidates for civic club membership. Even if they’re not coaching, moms and dads want to be at their kids’ events, not sitting at a chicken dinner in a restaurant.
There is no doubt that whatever the causes, participation in traditional civic groups has fallen and continues to decline. The question is: What does that say about our communities and our culture? Is the decline in civic club membership a sign that the social and cultural fabric of our society is fraying? Is our athletic-focused “soccer society” destroying American civic culture, or is it just a different way for adults to be engaged in the community?
I don’t know the answer to those questions.
Although it’s not a bad thing that parents are devoting more time to their kids’ activities, the waning of our traditional civic groups saddens the traditionalist in me.
And I say that as one who, over a decade ago, resigned my civic club engagements to become more involved in my children’s pursuits.
I guess I’m part of this problem, too.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
The author does not allow comments to this entry