In my last few posts I've used mid-20th-century Ireland as an example of a traditional society – say, one without electricity, cars or modern media – and the USA right now as an example of a modern one, but of course there were many types of each, and a spectrum in between. Americans in the 1950s, for example, generally had electricity, running water, and often had cars, radios and televisions, all things that many Irish in that decade did not. Food more often came from a store rather than the field or pasture, paid for with paycheques earned at recognisable jobs. A time-travelling American plopped down into 1950s America might struggle with some pop culture, but they could survive.
Yet Americans then had some things in common with Irish people at the same time; they spent more time with family and less staring at screens, had more friends and spent more time with them, knew more neighbours, volunteered more, trusted strangers more, gathered for political causes more … and were generally happier and healthier. Children played more games, roamed a greater area, read more, and were better-educated at a younger age.
How do we know all this, you ask? Academics and pollsters took detailed surveys of American life through the 20th century -- “time diaries,” door-to-door questionnaires, phone polls and marketing research – in a way that more agrarian societies like Ireland did not. You don’t get many phone surveys where people have no phones, or market research when there’s little to market. America in the 1950s, then, presents a great test case – technological enough to be well-studied, traditional enough to tell us what we’ve lost.
In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam looked at hundreds of such surveys, and they chronicle the decline of “social capital” in America, the web of relationships that sustain a society. Bowling leagues, churches, political groups, fraternal organisations like Elk or Kiwanis all create and run on social capital, but so do friends carpool to work or who meet at a bar afterwards, families who have supper together, or neighbours who check on the old lady down the street.
Such people might give us encouragement or advice, a sympathetic ear or shoulder to cry on, a loan when we are short of money, a friend when we are sick. Humans are social animals, and
live longer, feel better, have better health and more meaningful lives when we have such connections, and enough such threads weave together a civil society, a quilt that cushions the weight of the world.
We don’t often stop to thank, or even think about, the person who picks up rubbish on the street, the driver who lets us through, or the neighbours who keep an eye on our house when we’re away, but a decent life depends on such courtesies, no matter how much money we have. In places where we see them removed – say, in a violent ghetto – we immediately feel their absence.
As a result, Americans today feel far less happiness than their grandparents did, trust others less, and know fewer people to trust in the first place, if survey responses are any guide. We see the results in the crime rate, the suicide rate, and the skyrocketing levels of mental illnesses that were once rare. We see it in the numbers of police, security guards and lawyers – their numbers stayed level relative to the population through the first two thirds of the 20th century, and then doubled in the last third. They exist to enforce social rules and standards of trust that we can’t rely on anymore, or don’t feel like following ourselves.
Happy Easter to everyone, and in a few days I'll write about what we don't need to admire in traditional societies.