Thursday, February 16, 2012

Patching a Broken World, Part 1

What is our world about, interpersonally? What is the nature of our ties to others in the 21st century? Call me a kitchen table sociologist, but these are the questions that keep me spaced out over mugs of coffee some days.

I first became a mother in a very different place. American society in the 1990’s was not discernibly different from the one I knew as a child in the 70’s and 80’s. Telephones were the major means of communication in those days, although you might still receive the occasional card or letter. Maybe you forgot, but we used to spend a lot of time on the telephone, talking to people with whom we had an in-person relationship.

Those in-person relationships were not what they are now, either, but stop right there: This is not an anti-Facebook rant. If you stick around, you will understand. In-person relationships in America started changing a long time before Mark Z thought of creating a social network. By the end of the 90’s, society was looking very different than it had just a few years earlier. People were holing up. According to author Cindy Vine,

The word 'cocooning' was first identified as a trend in the late 80's early 90's by an author called Faith Popcorn, in her book 'The Popcorn Report: The Future of Your Company, Your World, Your Life.' She basically looked at society and saw that people were going out less as they were cocooning in their homes because work was busy, hectic, and the news in the papers and on TV told them that it’s dangerous to be anywhere but safely ensconced in their castle.

The effect of cocooning in my life was dramatic. In the early 90’s, the workplace was akin to a second family. Professionals would hire on with a company and expect to stay there for life. Consequently, relationships between co-workers and their families were taken seriously. When our eldest son was born in 1990, I stayed at home with him while my husband worked at a large engineering firm. Much of our social lives revolved around his workplace. There were parties galore, both at work and on the weekends. A couple of his female co-workers befriended me, and even babysat on occasion. Even the stay-at-home wife of a junior engineer was included in the company social scene.

In 2012, the workplace based social life is as endangered as job security and pension plans. People know that they will be changing jobs several times over the course of their careers, so co-workers and their families are not included in our social lives as often. In addition, the recent lean economic years have driven companies to cut out events that used to be taken for granted as a pleasant part of working life, such as office parties, golf outings, and dinners with clients. The workplace is now just a place to work, and while the occasional friendship may spring up, there is not a social network in the office to support relationships in the same manner. Such relationships only endure on the TV show, The Office.

Workplace alienation is only one symptom of this societal shift away from old-style community. I have used the workplace as an illustration, but the move away from traditional communities can be traced to a general feeling of impermanence. Not only is my job not permanent, but neither is my church, my best friend, or even my spouse. (Yikes, not my spouse. We are dealing with the theoretical.) I may feel at liberty to change churches when it no longer suits my needs. My best friends may very well move across the country.

All of these transitory relationships reflect two opposing forces: The uncontrollable change that is thrust upon us in the modern world, and the power that we have to choose exactly what suits us as individuals. Individual needs begin to take precedence over the needs of the group, partially because there is no longer a group. These forces feed on each other. The more I feel that my social structure is crumbling due to forces outside of my control, the more I pull into my “cocoon”. The more I pull away from society, the more its groups disintegrate. (Continued in next post)

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