Several measures of social capital are on the wane.
Organisational membership is down. We are less likely to attend church. Political parties and unions are bleeding members. Sporting participation and cultural attendance are down.
Volunteering is likely below its post-war peak, though it did record a rise in the late 1990s.
We have fewer friends and are less connected with our neighbours than in the mid-80s. Other measures have flatlined, but few have risen.
So what explains the trends in social capital? First, let’s exonerate one defendant. The character variously known as “economic reform”, “economic liberalism” or “economic rationalism” frequently has been blamed for eroding social capital.
For example, Australian sociologist Eva Cox takes the view that free markets undermine trust and reciprocity. She writes that “the idea of the social is losing ground to the concepts of competition, and the money markets are replacing governments. The social aspects of humanity have somehow disappeared and we are left with a more atomised image of individuals competing in an endless process of distrust.”
Cox argues that means-tested social welfare, privatisation of banks and airlines, user pays and private health insurance have contributed to a decline in social capital in Australia.
From a similar perspective, another sociologist, Michael Pusey, contends that the “aggressive re-engineering of our institutions [has] brought a decline in trust . . . There’s a tendency for people to view others as competitors rather than friendly strangers.”
What both these critiques miss is that when two people repeatedly interact with one another in a market, they are likelier to behave well towards one another.
A plumber who turns up on time and charges the quoted price is a guy you’ll hire again. A boss who encourages workers to knock off early on quiet days is likelier to find employees willing to stay a little longer when times are busy.
In my view, there are seven plausible explanations for the drop in some social capital measures in Australia: long working hours, the feminisation of the workplace, car commuting, television, diversity, impersonal technologies and tipping points.
* Working hours: When I ask friends why they think social capital may be declining, the most common answer is “everyone is working longer hours”. But the truth is a little more complicated.
Despite the oft-heard rhetoric about how average working hours are rising, the bare facts show average hours of work have actually declined since the late 1970s.
On average, employed men work about three fewer hours a week than they did in the late 70s, while employed women work about two fewer hours a week.
However, just looking at averages masks the major changes that have taken place in Australian work patterns in the past generation. While the average working week has shortened modestly, there has been a growth in both short-hour and long-hour jobs. There is an increasing proportion of workers in jobs that require fewer than 35 hours a week, and a higher proportion in jobs that take more than 45 hours a week.
The “regular job” isn’t so regular any more.
* Feminisation: In the 50s, if a classroom of children were asked what their mothers did, most would have answered that their mother was a homemaker; it would have been an unusual child who stated their mother worked.
By the 80s, the proportions with working and non-working mothers would probably have been about equal.
And today the children with homemaker mothers would be in the minority.
From 1978 to 2009, the share of women who were employed rose from 40% to 55%. The largest increase was in part-time work, which nearly doubled from 14% in the late 70s to 25% in 2009.
Not surprisingly, this increased participation in the paid workforce has led to women spending less time doing housework.
Acknowledging that rising female labour force participation may have reduced social capital outside the home is not to suggest Australia is worse off as a result. The increasing feminisation of Australia’s companies is the best hope for workplace social capital.
* Car commuting: Solo car commuting is the least social way of getting to and from work. Part of the reason for this is it takes a considerable amount of time out of the day. Over a given distance, a car will generally get you there quicker than public transport. As a consequence, a rise in car commuting has allowed people to choose houses even farther from their workplace.
* Television: Over time, some of us seem to have replaced friends with Friends, and neighbours with Neighbours. There is no shortage of programs about people doing active things, from sports to cooking to dancing. But the irony is these programs have become popular precisely when Australians are participating in fewer social activities.
* Diversity: A spate of studies suggests continued high levels of immigration will bring a raft of economic and social benefits to Australia. But we should not gild the lily. Most likely, higher diversity will lead to lower levels of interpersonal trust.
It will also create an opening for opportunistic political entrepreneurs. The challenge for policy-makers is how to maintain the present levels of immigration while mitigating the impact on our social and political fabric. When it comes to interpersonal trust, one useful strategy would be to focus more attention on the problem itself: building local trust in immigrant communities. It may also be that, through time, race and ethnicity become less salient divisions in Australia.
Harvard University professor Robert Putnam argues that diversity reduces trust since people “act like turtles”, hunkering down to avoid those who are somehow different. Yet he also sees hope in the declining importance of the Catholic-Protestant divide in the US over the past half-century.
* Impersonal technologies: In sentencing actor Charlie Sheen for using prostitutes, the judge reportedly asked why a famous man like him would have to pay for sex. Sheen’s answer: “I don’t pay them for sex. I pay them to leave.” Revolting as Sheen’s sentiments may sound, they reflect one way technology has changed our interactions with one another.
As Yale economist Ian Ayres has pointed out, many people may be willing to pay a premium to avoid human interactions. If you don’t like to chat with the person staffing the cash register, many large stores will let you scan your own groceries. If you prefer not to speak with the person at the service station, pay at the pump. If you don’t like dealing with lecturers and classmates in person, sign up for distance education.
In some cases, technologies have crowded out human interaction because the new machines are better. Who bothers popping to a bookstore when they can get the book on their Kindle in less than a minute? In other cases, companies offer discounts for customers who interact only online. Most banks levy a surcharge on over-the-counter withdrawals (essentially asking customers to pay for a face-to-face conversation).
Like physical fitness, our skill in chatting with others is a learned habit. Pay a visit to Manhattan, and you’ll be struck by how comfortably and readily most New Yorkers can chat with someone they have never met before. A Reader’s Digest survey of 35 cities ranked New York No. 1 for civility. It’s not because Manhattan residents have the gene for sociability but because when you share a small island with 1.6 million other people, helping one another and making conversation is what you have to do to get by each day.
The difficulty with these explanations is we can say good things about most of them. Australia is clearly better off for being a more ethnically diverse nation, in which more women participate in the paid workforce than in the past.
Long working hours mostly reflect the preferences of workers, not bosses. Few of us would voluntarily relinquish cars, televisions or ATMs. What this means is any attempt to increase social capital in Australia will not involve a backlash against the causes, but innovative strategies to make us more socially connected. We need to shape a better future, not simply try to revive the past.
Read Andrew Leigh’s op-ed on the connections between social capital and the economy: “Connections Add Value“, Australian Financial Review, Oct. 12, 2010