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Bowling Alone

November 26, 2011

When searching for an article to link to on our Facebook page, a story from the St. Petersburg Times popped up. It was about WAVES National Unit 27, which shut down on November 12th of this month. The ladies had met every month or so for the last 25 years, sharing stories and camaraderie. Sixteen women were members of the unit and paid their annual dues, but only five attended the meetings and were active in keeping going. So this year, they made the hard decision to shut the doors. Said Unit Vice President Lee Lund, a WWII WAVE:

The unit has disbanded because of the decline of membership due to death, health issues, lack of younger members to take office and not enough members to assume officer responsibilities.

Unit 27 is facing challenges familiar to all the WAVES National units. When this project began, members were scattered in states across the country. Oregon, where the Homefront Heroines producer and director were living at the time, had the second largest number of units on the West Coast (only California had more); Florida, with its scores of retirees, was traditionally only of the states with a high number of units. The WAVES National Convention, held aboard a cruise ship in 2006, drew nearly 300 women, veterans of WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam. However, only a handful came from more recent conflicts.

WAVES National Convention 2006, courtesy Mel Kangleon

It’s not just an issue in Florida. Oregon, which had that plethora of active units when we began the project, now had just one listed on the WAVES National website. Other states are seeing similar declines. Barbara McCarthy, herself a Korean vet, was the most recent president of Unit 27. She saw the problem as twofold:

Only three of us are under (age) 80. Three girls are in assisted living facilities. One is homebound. Younger women are working, raising children

But Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam offers some startling research that indicates this lack of community involvement from the younger generation may be something beyond just working and raising a family. Instead, it has something to do with a shift in traditional social capital:

The very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.  We sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.

He dubs this trend “bowling alone,” because while Americans are bowling, they’re not doing it in leagues or other formalized organizations, but rather, alone.

Putnam doesn’t see this as a terminal condition; in fact he offers a list of 150 things you can do to build social capital. And we are seeing an uptick in some organizational groups, such as the politically based Tea Party and Coffee Party movements. Facebook can also offer a way to feel a part of a virtual community, and there are a plethora of veterans groups there (check our our Facebook page “likes” for links to some).

On another note, today (November 26) is Small Business Saturday, a movement to support local and independent businesses during the holiday season. It’s a great cause – and a great way to build social capital through supporting your own community.

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