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 3, Chapter 11 : Why? (Pressures of Time and Money) | Summary



Putnam starts his investigation into why American civic engagement has dropped by examining the most obvious possibility: Americans are busier now than ever before. As he notes, Americans often tell one another they would be more involved but "I don't have enough time."

But, are people really busier and under more pressure than ever before? While most Americans would agree they are anxious and busy, evidence they are busier than ever is, in Putnam's words, "unexpectedly difficult" to find. He cites several reports suggesting, in fact, we're no busier than we used to be. For example:

  • According to a report by economists Ellen McGrattan and Richard Rogerson, "The number of weekly hours of market work per person in the United States has been roughly constant since World War II."
  • Time diaries suggest "nonwork time burdens have been reduced," due to labor saving housework devices and fewer children.
  • There is no evidence, according to Putnam, Americans have less leisure time now than at other times in history. There is even some evidence we may have more.

On the other hand, there is some evidence Americans are busier. For example, dual-career families are more common, and "married couples average fourteen more hours at work each week in 1998 than 1969." In addition, people are working unusual hours, so that even if people do have leisure time it may not coincide with community groups' meeting or event times.

Even if people are busier, though, says Putnam, that shouldn't stop them from civic engagement. After all, he says, some studies suggest the hardest-working people are the most likely to be involved with civic activity.

He concludes working extra hours neither causes nor prevents civic engagement.

Putnam then goes on to explore the question of whether financial pressures are causing lower civic engagement. He notes there is a lot of financial anxiety among Americans, and studies from the Great Depression suggest unemployment and financial worry do lead to depression and social withdrawal.

On the other hand, he notes, the economy rose and fell several times during the last quarter of the 20th century, but "social capital only went down." As a result, he dismisses the idea that financial concerns are a major cause of the decline in civic engagement.

Finally, Putnam turns his attention to the question of whether more women in the workplace has led to a decline in civic engagement. Stay-at-home wives, after all, are traditionally very involved in social and civic activity.

Putnam decides this factor is significant but not significant enough to explain the decrease in civic engagement. He explains that "getting a job outside the home ... increases opportunity for making new connections and getting involved," even though it decreases available hours. He concludes "work outside the home ... is a double-edged sword with respect to civic engagement—more opportunity, but less time."

In the end he concludes neither time, money, nor the entrance of more women into the workplace is enough to explain the downturn in civic engagement. His explanation: "civic engagement and social connectedness have diminished almost equally for both women and men, working or not, married or single, financially stressed or financially comfortable."


Putnam in this chapter disproves several beliefs that are held by most Americans based on personal experience and anecdote. Specifically:

  • Putnam denies we are busier now than in past;
  • He denies financial pressures are greater now than in the past;
  • He states women's greater presence in the workplace has not had a major impact on women's engagement in civic activities.

All of these have been strongly held beliefs, not only at the end of the 20th century but well into the 21st. If these beliefs are not supported by research, they may in fact be myths.

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