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Ten-Pin Problem

Sociologist Robert Putnam argues in his new book that America’s social capital, like its bowling leagues, is rolling toward the gutter.

A generation ago, Friday-night fashion consisted of pressed polyester shirts with “Joe’s Lumber” or “Lubansky’s Live Bait” stitched into the back and a pair of slick saddle shoes. Leagues of neighbors, coworkers, and family friends gathered around pitchers of cheap beer and bowled frame after frame in pursuit of a chrome-plated trophy and a round on the house.

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No more. Bowling leagues have gone the way of Tupperware parties, drive-in movies, and Starsky and Hutch. Since the 1980s, fewer and fewer avid bowlers have been registering at local alleys and competing in bowl-off competitions Wednesday night after work. The lanes are losing their luster.

The demise of ten-pin fellowship says a great deal about American culture, according to Harvard University professor Robert Putnam. In his new book, Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Putnam fleshes out an argument he first made five years ago in an essay printed in the Journal of Democracy. The death of the bowling league, he argues, is indicative of an American population that doesn’t join political, religious, or civic organizations as much as it used to. A decreasing level of involvement, Putnam argues, has diminished the nation’s “social capital.” In short, Americans are missing out on the trust, camaraderie, and sense of community that make life worth living.

Critics of the original 1995 essay attacked Putnam for overlooking the obvious: Bowling alley and church attendance may be dropping simply because Americans are involved in new activities, like gossiping while watching Little League and soccer games. Bowling Alone answers those critics with a mountain of evidence gathered by Putnam and his researchers over the past five years.

In a recent interview, Putnam discussed how his ideas relate to life and work in the new economy.

Are online communities a poor substitute for the real thing?

I’m skeptical about a purely online community’s ability to be a real community. Chat rooms, for example, offer anonymity and fail to foster bonds of trust and reciprocity. Anonymity suggests deception, which is lethal for building real community ties. On the other hand, it’s clear that computers can powerfully extend real communities. We’re not going to mend fraying American social ties unless we think of ways to use technology to extend, deepen, and reinforce existing face-to-face communities.

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One of the most interesting examples of that is Fast Company’s Company of Friends. It links people who would not otherwise encounter each other in real-world space, and then encourages them to get together and deepen their friendship in face-to-face groups.

Employees of many startups spend many, many hours together seven days a week. Are they building social capital?

Social capital is the single most important asset of a startup company.

I recently had dinner with the CEO of a startup company who said her top problem was keeping talent. I asked her how she went about retaining employees and she said, “Actually, the greatest incentives don’t come from stock options or IPO opportunities, they come through the personal connections that we foster inside our company. Some employees stick around because they hope to strike it rich, but many continue working hard because they feel connected to other people in the company, which is a real community. In a bizarre way, I’m a glorified cruise director. I’m trying to help construct an attractive community that will lure in good folks and will inspire them to work hard and stick around — not because of their ties to me, but because of their ties to each other.”

This conversation illustrates the idea that leaders must work hard to promote personal networks, trust, and reciprocal ties within their workforce. Community is a productive asset.

Does that investment in social capital benefit anyone outside the company itself?

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Some friendships formed inside the firm can serve interests of the workers not associated with or connected to the interests of the employer. And the health effects of social capital are considerable. Connecting with somebody at work or over the back fence is a natural antidepressant. It isn’t the same thing as a church group that volunteers at soup kitchens, but there’s no reason why work relationships can’t evolve in that way.

How else can the workplace restore community?

The emergence of two-career families and women in the workforce is not new, but we’re only beginning to see the need for dramatic changes in labor law and labor practice. For example, flexible work schedules and time off for community service are becoming more commonplace today. The shift to more family-friendly and community-minded workplaces will be unpopular with some companies, but good employers will make these changes automatically in order to retain talent. The best companies in 1900 stopped hiring child labor because they knew it was the moral thing to do. But the United States had to enact laws that banned companies from hiring eight-year-olds because some continued to do so. Many years from now, the Family Medical Leave Act will be considered an important beginning to future changes in labor law.

Are Americans moving too fast? Do we focus too much on work?

I don’t say to people, “You’re an evil person because you’re spending so much time at work.” I have been working 14 hours a day, seven days a week for two or three years because I like it. I’d be upset if the United States passed a law forcing you to stop writing and go to bed at midnight in order to wake up early and work in a soup kitchen.

But my research suggests that the activities Americans are foregoing — connecting with family and community, even just hanging out in a bowling alley — are very rewarding and worthwhile. They’re rewarding in terms of physical and mental health, and they actually generate happiness.

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I simply say to people, “Look at the evidence. It makes sense for us to slow down a bit, not for some moral purpose, but because we might build lives that we like more.”

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