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 14 : Why? (From Generation to Generation) | Summary



In this chapter Putnam explores the possibility that generational change is the major reason for civic disengagement. As he says, "age is second only to education as a predictor of virtually all forms of civic engagement," and people of different generations have different levels of civic engagement. Middle-aged and older people, he says, are generally more engaged than younger people. But what is it about each generation that makes it more or less likely to engage?

To answer this question, Putnam says it is necessary to ask the same questions about each generation so as to compare them accurately. For example, did older Americans vote regularly when they were 18? Or do they only vote regularly now that they are in their older years? According to Putnam, research conducted along these lines suggests today's older Americans have always been more engaged than those born later. In short, he says, "this generational math ... is the single most important explanation for the collapse of civic engagement over the last several decades."

Putnam then goes on to explore the traits of younger Americans: "Gen X'ers"—members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980. He describes this generation as the tail end of a process of civic engagement. X'ers, he says, are materialistic people who "emphasize the personal and private over the public and collective." Few X'ers feel guilty when they don't vote, and they tend not to vote. They also tend to be more prone to depression and suicide than earlier generations. But while this is a trend, Putnam points out, it's not the case for all Gen X'ers. Some, for example, are very engaged in volunteerism and community service.

Putnam concludes by saying that differences between the generations are important: a highly civic-minded generation has been replaced by two generations "less embedded in community life." He suggests shared major catastrophes, such as the Great Depression and World War II, helped draw together older generations. Even baby boomers were drawn together by the events of the 1960s such as anti-war demonstrations and the civil rights movement. Such events have not occurred in recent years, so younger people have not had to come together in the same way.


In this chapter Putnam finally puts his finger on another reason for Americans' civic disengagement: generational change. There is no doubt that people of older generations behaved differently from millennials, and Putnam brings many different sources together to prove his point. He does not yet, however, have a good explanation for exactly why the disengagement occurs. He does mention the social bonding caused by major catastrophes as one possible reason why older generations would feel more connected to the nation and to one another.

Putnam wrote this book in 2000, at a time of relative calm in American life. Just a year later, terrorists crashed their planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, creating a bonding event for Americans of all ages. While Putnam's book can't reflect on events that occurred in the future, it does seem likely some of the international chaos that occurred after 9/11 has had an effect on Gen X'ers.

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