Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Study Guide

Robert Putnam

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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Section 2, Chapter 5 : Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital (Connections in the Workplace) | Summary



Putnam examines the idea that social connections in the workplace could be taking the place of social connections in civic life. He starts by looking at labor unions which, during 1950s and 1960s, were at an all-time high. Since 1975, however, union membership has plummeted. As a result, says Putnam, "The solidarity of union halls is now mostly a fading memory of aging men."

Unions, though, grew up in an economy that focused on manufacturing. Perhaps, Putnam suggests, they are not as relevant to the "female, white-collar, knowledge worker in the service industries" that became the "vanguard of the new labor force." In addition, more people are working more hours than ever before. Might this mean social capital has moved from the community to the workplace?

He examines this question but in the long run agrees with labor economist Peter Pestillo that the issue of declining social capital in the workplace isn't the result of a changing economy. Instead, as Pestillo says, "The young worker thinks primarily of himself. We are experiencing the cult of the individual."

Putnam supports Pestillo's point of view by pointing to falling participation in non-union work-related associations and organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Banking Association. Part of the reason for this, he hypothesizes, comes from corporate surveillance of employee conversations: according to a 1999 survey, says Putnam, "two-thirds of employers record employee voice mail, email, or phone calls."

Overall, Putnam concludes, while we are working more hours than ever, we are losing opportunities to build social capital at work. Americans are less willing to join social organizations at work, and quite a few Americans are unemployed. In short, he says, "the workplace is not the salvation for our fraying civil society."


Putnam presents a pessimistic view of the contemporary American workplace. He believes people are working longer and harder with fewer social compensations. At the same time he also believes individual workers are more self-centered and less interested in collaborating with others to achieve shared workplace goals.

To support this finding, Putnam uses a great many charts and facts—most reflecting workers' participation in membership-based organizations relating to the workplace. This type of finding, while certainly significant, does not reflect some of the changes that were underway even when the book was written. As Putnam notes, many people even during the 1990s were joining the "contingent" workforce or starting up their own companies. While it may be the case that independent workers and entrepreneurs are not union members, is it really true that they are disconnected and lonely? Perhaps their connections are made, not through unions or trade associations, but through working groups, formal and informal strategic alliances, or other means. As Putnam himself notes, "we lack definitive evidence" that people are less happy and engaged at work or in their work than in the past.

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