A forensic examination of Australian life, this insightful book suggests that contemporary society has lost touch with its communities and its people. Written from an economist’s perspective and based on organizational membership records and surveys, it presents the reasons why the social fabric has begun to fray and outlines the necessary steps to create a better civic and personal life. Distilling various aspects of Australian routineincluding religion, sport, and employmentthis book reveals what is being lost and how to get it back.
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About the Author
Andrew Leigh is an economics professor at Australian National University and a former lawyer, political advisor, and think-tank researcher. He has written two books and over fifty journal articles and is a regular columnist for the Australian Financial Review.
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By Andrew Leigh
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2010 Andrew Leigh
All rights reserved.
In 2005, security officers working in Parliament House in Canberra received a memorandum, stating: 'Officers are requested to treat any visitors to Parliament House with respect and courtesy and not address them as "mate" or use similar colloquialisms'.
Within hours, the 'mate memo' found its way to the journalists who work on the top floor of Parliament House. It didn't take long before the building erupted in full fury. Politicians from all political parties unleashed a cavalcade of criticism on the suggestion that security officers should not call politicians 'mate'. Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard called it 'absurd and ridiculous'. Labor politician Tanya Plibersek described the ban as 'un-Australian'.
Others used 'MateGate' as an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the term. Labor leader Kim Beazley said, 'It is a great part of Australian culture that we do call each other mate'. Liberal minister Nigel Scullion admitted that because politicians cannot always recall the names of everyone they meet, 'without using mate we'd be lost every day'. Liberal backbencher Mal Washer quipped, 'I would have thought that mate was the nicest four-letter word I've been called all year'.
After a day of excitement in parliament and on talk-back radio, the nation reached a furious consensus: any Australian should be able to address any other Australian as mate. Within 24 hours, the unfortunate author of the memo, Hilary Penfold, announced that she was withdrawing it.
As many people who have lived overseas can attest, there is a simple joy in the word mate. When studying in the United States, I would occasionally come back to Australia for a few weeks, and on those trips, I delighted in the simple pleasure of addressing bus drivers, waiters and best friends as 'mate'. Somehow it seemed to symbolise the strength of the connection between ordinary Australians, our egalitarian ethos, and the basic bonds that tie the nation together.
But the more I thought about this, the less confident I became about the notion that the social fabric of Australia was as intact as a brand new pair of Speedos. At Harvard, I worked as a researcher for Robert Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community showed that social capital in the United States had declined from 1960 to 2000. Curious to know whether this applied in my own country, I began collecting snippets of evidence from Australia. How had community organisations fared? Were people more involved in politics? What about workplace engagement? Were churches emptying out? How about sports? Do we volunteer more or less? Can we drop in on our friends without calling to make an appointment?
Just as some people collect coins and others collect Pokemon cards, I collect pieces of data. Through dusty libraries, emails, telephone calls and online, I have been steadily accumulating as much evidence as I can about community life in Australia. In a decade of on-again/off-again research, I have compiled a mountain of statistical evidence about social capital in Australia since about World War Two. Supplementing this are the stories about what these changes mean on the ground. I don't know about you, but in my own case, I don't believe a claim unless I see the raw numbers. But it doesn't hit me in the gut until I hear a story that backs it up. So don't mistake the content of this book for 'argument by anecdote'. The stories you will read here are only snapshots of reality, but each of them reflect the true patterns in the statistics.
What is social capital?
Throughout this book, I will use a simple definition of social capital: networks of trust and reciprocity that link multiple individuals together. These bonds exist between two friends who meet on Friday night for a beer. Such networks link together the members of a local cricket team, who know that trusting teams win more games. And social capital joins together co-workers, who find that working together gets the job done faster.
Note that my definition of social capital does not require that it always makes the world a better place. Although I believe that social capital is mostly beneficial, it is easy to come up with examples in which social capital reduces wellbeing. Members of a criminal gang may trust one another. Participants in a racist organisation can feel a sense of reciprocity for their fellow bigots. Global terrorist networks have social capital aplenty (if Osama bin Laden had fewer friends, the world would be a safer place).
Does 'bad social capital' undermine the very concept of social capital? Not at all. On balance, we generally think that more physical capital improves our lives. Yet while cars make most people's lives more convenient, they still take the lives of about 1500 Australians annually. Similarly, while human capital is typically regarded as beneficial, the flying lessons taken by the September 11 hijackers are a case of education helping to cause colossal damage. Yet these exceptions do not change the general rule: most of the time, physical capital and human capital improve the human condition. The same is true of social capital.
In understanding social capital, a useful distinction is between 'bonding' (which joins together similar people) and 'bridging' social capital (which transcends boundaries of race, ethnicity or income). For example, informal socialising is generally a form of bonding social capital, since cross-race and cross-class friendships are the exception rather than the rule. Similarly, if you socialise with people in your street, odds are that they will have a similar income to yours.
Bridging social capital is most common in organisations and places that bring together dissimilar people. Your workplace, for example, probably provides more opportunities for bridging ties. If you work for a reasonably large firm, chances are that you are able to mingle at work with people of different skin colour than your own, and with people whose pay packet is twice or half the size of yours.
Across organisations, the degree of bonding and bridging differs in interesting ways. If you want a body that bridges the rich–poor divide, you'll have more luck with a church than a trade union. If it's ethnicity you want to bridge, your best chance is probably the local soccer club.
Both bonding and bridging social capital are important in their own ways. Bonding social capital is the kind that you need when your marriage breaks up, you lose your job, or you feel that life is no longer worth living. In a crisis, what matters is having strong friends who can drop everything to help you out.
Bridging social capital is important when you need to find a new job. In sociologist Mark Granovetter's words, what matters in getting a new position is having a large network of 'weak ties'. Because we don't need to know someone particularly well to recommend them for a job, your acquaintance can be as helpful as your best friend. And because you have more acquaintances than close friends, it's more likely that an acquaintance knows about the perfect job opening than it is that a good friend knows about it.
The other reason that bridging social capital is important is that it fosters tolerance. The more time we spend with those who are very similar to us, the easier it becomes to develop misplaced stereotypes of those who are unlike ourselves. Are the poor lazy? Are the rich greedy? Are Anglos violent? Are Asians selfish? Bridging social capital can help break down the walls of intolerance that spring up in a diverse society.
Remembrance of things past
As the saying goes, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. In comparing how social capital has changed over time, we should beware of glorifying the past. In his book about 1950s Australia, John Murphy quotes one campaigner who described Australia as 'a nation of joiners', and gave examples of many booming clubs and organisations. But Murphy also points out that 'homosexual men lived under the cloud of fear of exposure and prosecution', since homosexuality was linked with 'disease, decadence or security risk'. For migrants, too, xenophobia was considerably worse than today. Murphy quotes a Footscray 'bodgie':
We went around looking for some dagoes to do over. Frequently we staged bloodthirsty battles in these gardens, doing over eight or so foreigners. Most times one of the gardeners called the cops, but they didn't like the foreigners either, and they took so long getting to the phone that we had all gone long before they arrived.
Indigenous Australians fared little better. The official policy was assimilation, and Aboriginal people in Queensland and Western Australia were not allowed to vote in state elections until the 1960s. Women, too, were largely ignored in the echelons of power. Enid Lyons was the sole woman in Cabinet in the 1950s, and company boards were almost exclusively male. Paul Keating once described this era as Australia's 'salad days', a time when the nation was yet to come to grips with its place in the world. The challenge now is not to find our way back to a bygone age, but to learn about how and why Australian civic life has changed over time.
This book aims to crunch the numbers on Australian social capital since World War Two. In chapter 2, I review the evidence on joining, volunteering and giving. Drawing on surveys, membership records and tax data, I track trends in associational membership, the number of associations, volunteering rates and donation rates.
In chapter 3, I outline the evidence on religious participation, tracking trends in the share of people who attend services, and looking at the extent to which this is due to atheism (non-belief) or nominalism (belief, but non-attendance).
In chapter 4, I turn to politics. Among the measures of political social capital are the share of Australians who cast a valid vote (ie they comply with the compulsory voting law and do not spoil the ballot paper). I also look at political party membership trends over the past half-century. In addition, I survey the evidence on political knowledge and engagement to get a sense of our current levels of knowledge.
Social capital in the workplace is the focus of chapter 5, which looks at trends in union membership, and how unions compare with the new alternatives that have sprung up to replace them. Union decline also has some special drivers, and I consider these in some detail.
In chapter 6, I look at sport and culture. Are Australians more or less likely to play an organised sport? Do we attend live sport more or less than in the past? And what about cultural events, such as museums, music performances and theatre? Are we the sports-mad culture vultures that we promised on our first date? Or is the reality a little different?
Informal socialising is the subject of chapter 7, which uses a set of surveys to look at how we interact with friends and neighbours. If you thought that friendship was immeasurable, this is the chapter for you. I also tackle the big question of how online interactions have improved social capital. Are Facebook, MySpace and Twitter part of the solution or part of the problem?
Chapter 8 looks at trust, honesty and crime. Do most people believe that their fellow Australians can be trusted or are we generally suspicious of others? How do we regard the ethics and honesty of particular professional groups? And are the tabloids and talk-back stations right when they speak about the crime wave sweeping our major cities?
Where chapters 2 to 8 track the trends, chapter 9 crunches the causes. Which hypotheses can be dismissed, and which ones should be taken seriously? We may not want to run the tape backwards, but getting a firm handle on what caused social capital to diminish is vital if we are to find appropriate solutions.
In chapter 10, I conclude by looking at social capital across Australia. Which state or territory wins the prize for the highest level of social capital in the nation? The book concludes with ten ideas for boosting social capital in your neighbourhood.
For readers interested in delving into the data themselves, detailed figures may be downloaded from my website: www.andrewleigh.org.
If you gave me a choice between the year of my birth (1972) or being born half a century earlier in 1922, I would always choose to be a child of the 1970s. Compared with my grandparents, my generation enjoys higher incomes, better education and more fulfilling jobs. We are less likely to mourn the death of one of our children, and more likely to live a long and healthy life. Women, migrants, homosexuals and Indigenous Australians suffer less discrimination in my generation than in the past.
Yet these gains should not blind us to what has been lost in transition. For the next generation – say those born in 2022 – why not hope that they can have both? There is no contradiction between enjoying the prosperity, longevity and tolerance of the modern age and bringing back some of the sense of community and camaraderie of the past.CHAPTER 2
Joining, volunteering and giving
In 2006, a Western Australian branch of the Country Women's Association launched a membership drive that was both innovative and poignant. Innovative, because the body had decided to rebrand itself 'Chicks With Attitude'. Poignant, because two of the three members shown in the accompanying photograph had grey hair. Formed in the 1930s, the organisation had played a pivotal role in the Margaret River area, even purchasing its own building in 1954. Over the next half-century, it had steadily waned. At the time of launching the membership drive, it had just four members.
Founded in 1922 by New South Wales woman Grace Munro, the Country Women's Association grew rapidly over the ensuing decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, it ran an array of hospitals, baby health centres and libraries, and was regarded as one of the most important advocacy voices for rural families. Because the organisation did not keep consistent membership statistics, it is difficult to know precisely when the downturn began, but it has clearly been in decline for several decades.
Books that discuss the post-war decades often emphasise the importance of joining and volunteering. Melanie Oppenheimer writes of the 1950s:
When examining the roles and impact of volunteering, one is struck by the vibrancy and innovation of the period. New advocacy-style self-help groups were formed, such as the War Widows' Guild ... The 1950s also saw the consolidation of many service clubs such as Rotary, Apex, Soroptimist and Quota ... In terms of religious volunteering, the 1950s was also a period of growth ... [it] also witnessed a nascent cultural flowering in the performing arts, much of it propelled by volunteers.
In a similar vein, Craig McGregor describes civic life in the 1960s:
The middle-class lifestyle is very nearly the Australian lifestyle. The men belong to clubs like the RSL, the Leagues, the local bowling club, perhaps a Christmas hamper club as well; their wives join women's auxiliaries, or the Country Women's Association, or the local school's Parents' and Citizens' Association.
The statistics bear out the anecdotes. As best I can tell, mid-1960s Australia had similar levels of associational membership as the United States, a country with famously high levels of civic engagement (and whose levels of associational membership were close to their peak at that time). As French social observer Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, Americans were 'forever forming associations'. To look at the data on post-war Australia, it is easy to gain the same impression of this country.
This chapter focuses on changes in organisational membership, volunteering and charitable donation. Using a variety of data sources, it aims to show how patterns of joining, helping and giving have changed in Australia. As well as looking at particular bodies, I aim to focus on overall rates of joining, so as to understand what became of the organisations that Oppenheimer and McGregor describe. Have people simply shifted their allegiance to new organisations, or has associational life in Australia declined? From joining, I turn to look at our willingness to give time and money to community organisations. The results may surprise you.
In broad terms, there are three ways of looking at changes in organisational membership over time. First, we can look at potential members. By asking a sample of people whether they are involved in any organisation at all, we can get an overall sense of joining rates. Second, we can look at the number and vintage of associations, to see whether organisations are proliferating or shrinking away. Third, we can track membership records for particular organisations.
Each of these strategies has its strengths and weaknesses. Surveying people is the best way of finding out about overall rates of joining, since it allows for the possibility that people have simply switched allegiance rather than dropped out of contact with any association. But survey records are limited in that they only provide a satellite view. Counting clubs gives a sense of the diversity of options for a potential joiner, but is limited because it does not take into account the size of each body. Looking at membership records for particular organizations provides the most nuanced picture, but omits newly created bodies.
Excerpted from Disconnected by Andrew Leigh. Copyright © 2010 Andrew Leigh. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2 Joining, volunteering and giving,
5 The workplace,
6 Sport, culture and entertainment,
7 Friends and neighbours,
8 Trust and honesty,
9 Explaining the trends,
10 What is to be done?,