There is a lot to be learned from little things. When you first become acquainted with them you don’t think that they are that big of a deal. But add up some of those seemingly inconsequential things and you might find a really big thing.
Just before the Battle of the Bulge, or the “watch on the Rhine”, depending on whose side you were on, various army units across a fairly narrow area reported capturing German infiltrators that were carrying rubber tubing. No one really understood what that was about until the battle was almost over and undamaged Tiger tanks were found, intact and abandoned in various places. Later of course it was discovered that the Germans only had enough gas for about a week of movement and that was not counting battlefield maneuvers. The German soldiers had been ordered to be ready to siphon gas from the rich supply depots they were hopeing to overrun quickly. Now that seemingly small information could have meant a lot if it had been understood before hand.
20 years ago I discovered that there was a crisis in, of all things, bowling. A women in my church was the head of some national bowling association and she told me that bowling alleys were having a terrible time. People still loved to bowl (it is one of the most popular activities in the country), profits were up, lane occupancy was up etc. The problem was that even though as many or more people were bowling, league play was down and it was harder to find spaces for league play because people were bowling alone. When I asked her why she thought that was her answer was stored in my memory banks but at the time I thought little of it. She said no one wants to belong to something that is organized and structured anymore.
So far so good. We had a men’s group associated with the LLL that was defunct. A small group of us started getting together at a farm yard once a month, had a cook out, Bible study and horse shoe game and a good time was had by all. It went swimmingly until one of the geniuses among us said we need to organize again and elect a President, and a treasurer and from that day forward no one would come anymore. Another piece of information in my brain that I never connected.
I was invited to speak to an LLL rally and my topic was to be “How to reach the next generation”. I think I made a lot of epople angry because I said to the gathered throng of sixty somethings, “why do you want to worry about reaching the next generation when you haven’t reached mine”. I asked for a show of hands by decades – in their 20’s – 4; 30’s -0; 40 – 3; 50’s – 3; 60’s -30; over 70- 10. So much gray hair in the room I joked about Grecian formula and Geritol but the point was not funny. Our pool of replacements for the one’s moving on was grim. I asked the young men how long they belonged to LLL and they said they didn’t. Then why are you here? – answer we are serving the dinner. Why? We enjoy doing that.
Things clicked then and I developed a presentation that I made to Hospital Boards and Social service agencies, to the LWML and others, that the future of non-profit Boards and services was in jeopardy. My point was that in the future – which is now – groups that functioned mainly by business meetings, bylaws, elected officers, and a structured legalistic way of doing business would soon be out of business. The reason is not that that they are unimportant. Volunteer run non-profits produce trillions of dollars of social capital each year. The reason is that many see the structure of what they do as unimportant. I said that in the future – which is now – it would be easier to get people to write a check than to run for office. I said that at some point the graying of the volunteer pool would be the death nell for many groups. I suggested three LWML groups per congregation – the meeters and bylaw loving planners, the young still figuring out where they fit in this operation, and the ones that loved the servant event like the young men at the LLL Rally. I talked about self generating interest groups that rise up suddenly do good work and then disappear. I said that organizations would have to be nimble and ready to turn on a dime to capitalize on those interest groups.
Of course this was met with a lot of frustration and the usual lament – “well, (huff huff) we have to have organization”.
One group said, “let’s have a meeting to plan a meeting so that we can discuss and plan how to work through this”.
That was in the late 90’s and imagine my surprize when I discovered a little book written in 2000 called of all things, “Bowling Alone”.
Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work — but no longer. This seemingly small phenomenon symbolizes a significant social change that Robert Putnam has identified in this brilliant volume, Bowling Alone, which The Economist hailed as “a prodigious achievement.” Drawing on vast new data that reveal Americans’ changing behavior, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures — whether they be PTA, church, or political parties — have disintegrated.