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Social clubs died out in America. Now, venture capital is bringing them back

Their reemergence is a story about social networks, inequality, and what constitutes a community.

Social clubs died out in America. Now, venture capital is bringing them back
[Source Image: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images]

Scott Monty, the CEO of a strategic communications firm, is something of a club aficionado. As a young adult, he was part of DeMolay, an international youth leadership club. As he started his career in Boston, he joined the Algonquin Club, a social club for business people that gathers in a building so beautiful, he chose to get married there. 

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But looking back, he can trace his love of clubs to a moment when he was in high school in Boston in the early 1980s. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, Monty decided to write a research paper on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but he couldn’t find any good books about the author in his school library. That’s when Monty’s teacher encouraged him to get in touch with the local Sherlock Holmes Club. Monty found the phone number of the man who ran the nearest chapter and gave him a ring. He will never forget that call. “He spent an hour regaling me with stories and details about Sherlock Holmes’ role in popular culture over the years,” Monty recalls.

Monty went on to attend to the Sherlock Holmes Club biannual meeting at the Gillette Castle, where he was introduced to 50 people of all ages who were joined entirely by their love of the fictional detective. “I walked in and never felt so welcomed in my life,” he says. “It was everyone from presidents to plumbers and everyone in between, who just happened to share this common interest. Looking back, this was really my first social network.”

Members of the Elks dedicate a building in Denver on October 23rd, 1970. [Photo: Bill Wunsch/The Denver Post/Getty Image]

America: a nation of clubs

Until recently, American social life has revolved around small groups of people brought together by similar social interests, much like Monty’s many clubs. Some asked members to pay dues, but in many cases–like the Sherlock Holmes club and DeMolay–the fees were modest and served primarily to support the operations. Many were entirely free. And many believe they had an important role to play in American society. 

“These organizations were important to American democracy because they were democratic in their internal governance,” says Peter Levine, a professor of political science at Tufts. “They were local, but they were also federated so they brought America together. They were gender and race segregated as a whole, but they went across class, creating cross-class solidarity.”

As Levine points out, while the clubs of the past brought together people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, they were exclusionary in many other ways. Many clubs were gender segregated based on stereotypes about masculinity and femininity: Men tended to be in business organizations, while women were part of quilting and charity clubs, then later in suffrage groups. And, until the 1960s, clubs tended to be racially segregated. For instance, minorities were very literally excluded from business clubs that were historically white, making it impossible for them to create the kinds of networks that would be valuable for career advancement.

Over the last few decades, sociologists and political scientists have found that American clubs of all stripes–from youth service clubs to bowling leagues–have experienced steep declines in their memberships. (Part of this is the direct result of American society becoming more racially and gender inclusive, but more on that later.) The Freemasons, which began as a guild for men who worked as stonemasons but eventually opened its membership to men from other professions, has lost 3.8 million members since the late 1950s. The Elks, a social club whose members include six presidents, has seen its membership drop from 1.6 million in 1980 to 803,000 in 2012. The Rotary only has 330,000 members now and only 10% of them are under 40.

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Meanwhile, a new kind of club is rising up in major cities. These are stylishly designed, members-only spaces that often come with a high price tag, thereby limiting membership to the wealthy and privileged. There are social clubs like Soho House, Spring Place, and the Battery, which serve as gathering spaces for well-heeled professionals. There are special-interest clubs like The Cultivist, which, for $2,200 a year, gives art-lovers access to museums and galleries without the hassle of making bookings. There are private gyms like Equinox and Peformix House where you can work out with celebrity coaches using top-of-the-line equipment. There are beautiful coworking spaces like WeWork, the Wing, and the Riveter. And there are now even high-end clubs for parents, like The Wonder,  which offers daily programming for children under 12, and Maison, a coworking and community-building space for mothers.

In other words, there are fewer clubs that bring together people of different socioeconomic backgrounds across the country and a growing number that are designed for a class of digitally native, urban professionals. All of this is changing the social landscape of the United States. What accounts for the sharp decline in traditional clubs and organizations? How will this new breed of elite club change American society? And perhaps most importantly, is there a way to bring back free, or inexpensive, clubs that will allow more Americans to participate in communities and engage civically?

[Photo: Pawel Kadysz/Unsplash]

The decline of the club

In many ways, America is a nation of clubs. Just ask Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher who visited the United States back in the 1830s. As he stopped in towns and villages, he noticed that people seemed to be part of various social groups.

“Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations,” he writes in Democracy in America. “There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types–religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.”

De Tocqueville also noticed that these groups tended to include people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and operated democratically, with a set of rules and processes the members agreed upon. Larger organizations would spin off chapters to eventually build impressive nationwide networks. All of this was entirely different from what he saw in France, where the Gilded Age of Louis the 14th was in full swing, and people formed associations entirely based on social status.

But sometime in the last fifty years, America’s club scene began to wither. Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, makes the case that class and gender played a role in changing the nature of associations. She argues that cross-class, gender-segregated organizations allowed a large groups of people to band together with a shared identity. But as women entered the workforce, they left women’s groups that were devoted to say, knitting, choosing to be part of professional groups instead. And as more Americans went to university, they tended to leave groups that involved their less educated peers. “Better educated Americans, in short, have pulled out of broad community groups in record numbers since the mid-1970s, sometimes leaving behind people with high school educations or less,” Skocpol writes in The Brookings Review.

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In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putman makes the case that in addition to all of the social changes in America, technology played a big role in encouraging people to leave clubs. Television and the internet, for instance, encouraged people to spend their leisure time on their own, rather than with other people. Social media allows people to feel like they are in a kind of community, but they don’t actually have deep relationships with them. “Ironically, social media was supposed to bring us closer together, but I think it’s driven a wedge between us because people can keep their distance from behind the keyboard,” Monty says.

This is a problem because reams of research show that people embedded in associations in their communities–whether they are religious groups, bowling leagues, or book clubs–are better able to weather poverty and unemployment; they are more likely to be educated, and less likely to face crime and drug abuse. Putnam also points out that the decline of these groups also leads to decline in voter turnout, perhaps because people who are not part of the fabric of a community are just less invested in using their political capital to improve their neighborhood. In other words, digital communities can’t replace the deep, in-person relationships that we get from offline communities. And clubs and associations were an important way to build these bonds.

A WeWork coworking space. [Photo: WeWork]

“The venture capitalization of belonging”

Some American entrepreneurs are now in the business of bringing real, in-person community back. There is also money to be made in creating spaces that build community. Particularly if those spaces are also beautifully designed by architects and interior decorators, and stocked with high-quality coffee and craft beer.

One of the most obvious is the coworking space. There are currently 14,000 co-working spaces worldwide catering to about a million people, and analysts expect this industry to keep growing. Many coworking companies don’t just promise to give you a desk away from home: They explicitly build their brands around forging relationships and offering networking opportunities that can help members advance their careers.

The all-women’s coworking space the Wing, for instance, is modeled after the women’s clubs that helped bring about women’s right to vote. At a panel during the Vanity Fair Summit, Audrey Gelman, the Wing’s founder, explained her vision for the community. “It was always very philanthropic and civic minded at its core,” she said. “Our idea was to resurrect (the concept of the women’s club) for modern women. The difference between women today and women a hundred years ago is that women today work. We wanted it to be a place where they could quit their white collar jobs and go for their dreams and start companies together.”

But many clubs in the past were self-organized groups that were often free to join. The Wing, WeWork, and most other coworking spaces on the market are run as businesses, and membership comes at a steep cost. In practice, this means that they are not accessible to everyone. Though some offer a small number of scholarships, the networking is largely happening among people of a similar socioeconomic class. Part of this is borne out in the numbers. While there are currently 15 million Americans who are self-employed and could work in a coworking space, only 6% of them do.

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Priya Parker, the author of a recent book called The Art of Gathering, points out that many of these clubs and coworking spaces are far more inclusive than vocation-oriented clubs of yore. Take Soho House, for instance, which began 22 years ago as a club for people in the creative community. Nick Jones created the concept at a time when the only other alternative was the gentlemen’s club that only admitted white men. In contrast, Soho House ensured that half of all members were women. “Many of these spaces are very woke and inclusive from the perspective of being conscious of race and gender,” says Parker. “But the barriers to entry that are financial create a different type of exclusion.”

For reference, it costs $2,100 a year to join a single Soho House location, and $3,200 to gain access to all 18 clubhouses. Soho House only admits members periodically, trying to pick people who are in creative industries, and there are reportedly tens of thousands of people on the waitlist. A coworking space like WeWork offers a wide range of plans with different pricing depending on the location. The lowest monthly plan involves gaining access to a common workspace ($350 in New York, $400 in San Francisco and $240 in Detroit), but you can also pay more to rent a private office (starting at $1,000 in New York, $1,100 in San Francisco and $510 in Detroit).

Parker believes that part of the reason that these modern spaces are so expensive is that many have taken a lot of venture capital to fund their growth. WeWork, for instance, has received almost $13 billion in funding since it was founded in 2010, and it is still not profitable. The Wing, which launched in 2016, has raised $117.5 million. And the Wonder, a just-launched space that offers activities for children, raised $2 million in seed funding from angel investors like Rebecca Minkoff and Marissa Mayer. To make these spaces viable businesses, they need to charge membership fees that will cover their costs. But to make these membership fees worthwhile, the companies need to make expensive investments in renting real estate, creating beautiful interiors, and offering amenities like stocked kitchens.

“The fundamental, underlying financial structures of these clubs are completely different from those in the past,” says Parker. “They have a different set of pressures, including growth and a need to scale. We are now in a context of the venture capitalization of belonging.”

[Source Photo: Photo_Concepts/iStock]

Bringing back the community club

Many political scientists say that the withering of America’s clubs and associations makes the country worse off. It means that fewer people are embedded in a community, which is known to help people feel happier and even live longer. But it also makes our nation worse off because people become increasingly siloed and removed from those who are unlike them. While this new breed of social club is actively trying to be inclusive when it comes to race, gender, and sexual orientation, they are still segregating people by social class.

Theda Skocpol, the Harvard political scientist, believes that to create a better society we need to break down some of these class lines. “One answer to improving the nation’s civic life will turn out, I believe, to lie in encouraging privileged Americans to rejoin–or recreate–the group settings in which they have a daily chance to work with a broad cross-section of fellow citizens to address the nation’s concerns,” she writes in the Brookings Review. Such groups could include everything from being part of the PTA at a public school or a board member at the public library, creating a bowling league or a book club, or as the 2020 election draws near, perhaps volunteering for a political campaign.

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How do we create such new communities? Parker has some ideas. She spent a lot of time thinking about how to create meaningful gatherings while researching her book. For one thing, Parker believes it is important for Americans to understand how important these communities and clubs are for the health of the country. “If we have limited time and attention, are we tending the gardens of our private clubs or are we tending the gardens of our public parks?” asks Parker. “Literally and metaphorically.”

At a time when there are fewer free, self-organized clubs in our neighborhoods, Parker encourages people to invest in public spaces that tend to bring people of different backgrounds together, like parks, libraries, playgrounds, and museums in your community. This means spending time in these spaces and inviting people from less well-off neighborhoods to enjoy these public spaces as well. It means helping to support these spaces financially if the need arises and you have the means. This will allow people to spend time with their neighbors and begin to get to know people from different walks of life.

Of course, none of this is as glamorous as visiting a swanky private gym or enjoying the decor at a well-appointed coworking space. But, in the end, spending your limited time on public–rather than private–spaces could be better for the country. “It takes deep creativity and a sense of purpose to think about how you collectively create a public community,” Parker says. “I think that until people actively realize that it’s important for democracy and for their sense of feeling like a citizen, you’ll still have private clubs. But we need to ask ourselves: Are we, as we are building community, creating a Tocquevillian society full of associations, or are we creating the Gilded Age of Louis the 14th.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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