One of the most dramatic yet widely unrecognized changes in American society, over the decades since 1950, has been the diminution and disappearance of communities as Americans knew them in the pre-World War II years. The neighborhoods are still there, but the neighborliness – the sense of community — is largely gone. Consider what our beloved Colonel Bunny had to say on this subject not too long ago:
I remember living in a townhouse community and going to a nearby restaurant for dinner one Saturday. I looked around that crowded restaurant no more than a quarter mile from my home as the crow flies and it struck me that after eight years there I didn’t know one person in the restaurant. Same with any other establishment in that area. I had a pleasant relationship with one next door neighbor and that was it.
Any other social contact I had was at work and from what I developed elsewhere with considerable effort, invariably requiring driving many miles to enjoy. Without such effort it’s easy to live a grey life. I met a Scots fellow in London back in 1962 and he told me he’d lived in London for 25 years but had not one friend.
The Colonel was focused on the anomie that characterizes high-density environments: e.g., cities. Yet most American suburbs are no better off. It takes more effort, more consistently applied, to form a true community with one’s suburban neighbors than most of us are either willing or able to exert.
The suburbs, you see, are where people are likely to live for easiest access to the “urbs,” but at a distance from urban crowding, costs, and pathologies. Suburbanites tend to sleep in the suburbs but live, for certain values of that word, in the nearby cities where they go to work.
Of course, there are “inner” and “outer” suburbs. Things should be a bit better in the “outer” ones, as the residents there are much less likely to focus their lives on workplaces in the city. Yet they’re hardly any better, as regards forming and maintaining vital, functioning communities, than the “inner” suburbs and the cities themselves. Why?
There are several reasons for this, but the one that’s on my mind at the moment is – drum roll, please – the division of labor within the American family and how it’s changed over my lifetime.
The pre-War family divided up the “chores” in a fairly uniform fashion: breadwinner, homemaker, minor children. One income carried the family. That left one adult, usually the wife, to care for the homestead and to cultivate and maintain neighborhood relationships. Doing so was a part of her responsibilities that few American wives shirked. Indeed, most wives enjoyed the duty.
Wives welcomed new neighbors, and introduced them to neighborhood society.
Wives were central to neighborhood charities and civic undertakings;
Wives were the planners and organizers of special social events.
Wives were the backbone of the neighborhood churches and synagogues.
And the “wife circuit” was where to go for the dirt on neighborhood shenanigans.
But the Missus doesn’t do much of that any more. She’s too busy earning money.
According to the last set of figures I remember seeing, more than 70% of American wives work outside the home at a full-time job, or an equivalent combination of part-time jobs. Why? Does she genuinely prefer to spend her days working for wages rather than taking care of her home and children and maintaining the family’s voice and participation in the community?
Mrs. America of this Year of Our Lord 2021 couldn’t tell you. She’s never known things to be other than the way they are today. Her family needs the money she earns:
- To pay a once-weekly cleaning lady, so she can go out and earn;
- To pay for day-care for the youngest children, so she can go out and earn;
- To pay for her wardrobe, her vehicle, her gas and insurance, so she can go out and earn;
- To pay for all the luxuries and gadgets the kids simply must have;
- To pay the property taxes that allow the family to live in a “good school district;”
- To pay the restaurant, television, therapists, and liquor bills: necessary supports of her frantic life.
It doesn’t sound like a positive-return strategy, but most American wives feel they have little choice in the matter: We need the money. But among the costs of that money is the loss of the time that would otherwise have gone into the neighborhood community.
Given contemporary social conditions, I wouldn’t want to be the one to say to Mrs. America, “Stay home! Spend less! Enjoy being a mother, homemaker, and pillar of the community!” Even if it would be far less stressful, possibly to the substantial improvement of her life expectancy and that of her marriage, Mrs. America is overwhelmingly more likely to react to such counsel with hostility than with sober consideration of the alternatives. Many different sources of influence have converged upon her to beat into her head the unexamined conviction that the way things are is the way they must be.
Unexamined convictions are the hardest to undo. Even if we make the time to dredge them up and ask ourselves “why did I ever buy into this?” the sense that we’re thinking of tinkering with something fundamental, something whose alteration would cause an upheaval in the way we live, is a powerful deterrent to change. Compared to the toll the working-wife modus vivendi takes on a woman, perhaps the loss of community feeling isn’t that significant after all.
There is no Last Graf. The problem is stiff. Some problems are beyond even the powers of a Certified Galactic Intellect. Yet millions of women and their families would benefit from a solution. So would tens of thousands of American neighborhoods whose residents are virtual strangers to one another, almost as much as if they were all locked into their homes and unable to interact with the larger world except over the Internet…which, come to the think of it, is pretty damned close to the situation before us.
Have a nice day.