Robert Putnam, best known for his scholarly article "Bowling Alone", is the leading intellectual to have pointed out a phenomena that he calls declining "social capital" in the United States. We bowl more, but not in leagues. The Free Masons, Elks, and every other organization that requires you to show up in person on a regular basis are seeing declining memberships. Checking writing charities have grown, while volunteer efforts have declined. Mainline churches have seen their memberships dwindle. Few people attend political party caucuses. Fewer people belong to unions than at any time since the 1920s, before there was national labor legislation. Work and family seem to gobble up all of our time.
Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class", doesn't dispute these figures, but observes that economic growth takes place not in places with large social capital resources, but in places where people tend to have many shallow and contingent relationships in their social network. Places with large amounts of "social capital" tend to be places where community norms exert themselves strongly, which can suppress the innovative, apple cart upsetting ideas that are necessary to bring about positive change. More tolerant places, which tend to have less "social capital" don't suppress those kinds of ideas.
It is a phenomena that triggers in me, mixed feelings. I grew up in a small town (and have many relatives in rural America), attended a mainline church every week, spent a year as a Rotary exchange student where I saw first hand what Rotary meetings involved, was an Eagle Scout, and attended a small liberal arts college in a very small town. I know what it is like to live in a high social capital context and encountered it again, as an adult, living in Grand Junction, Colorado. But, I also know what it is like to live in very low social capital contexts -- life in a megastate university, life in the urban central city of Denver, and similar urban lifestyles lived by friends and family members. There are drawbacks that come with living where everybody knows your name, as well as benefits.
Rotary meetings are cheesy as hell. The Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, the corny songs, the 50 years stale rituals, and the constant come ons for small contributios of cash call for a level of gregariousness and retro sensibility that few people in my generation (generation X) share. And, Rotary is hardly the only offender in the genre. However, powerful and mysterious the Free Masons used to be, it is hard to get excited about a bunch of old men carrying out stale rituals in drab four square buildings with meeting rooms in them anymore, even if they are secret, and the prospect of moving up to be a Shriner so you can ride on undersized motorcycles holds few attractions for anyone over the age of twelve. My generation has no tolerance for stale parliamentary procedure and rigidly programmed meetings for hours on end. We want to get to the point without pretense.
The rituals of mainline churches are far more dignified, but they are having to resort to the approaches of their evangelical cousins, as hymns written in four part harmony by Reformation activists five hundred years ago no longer stir the soul in the same way. I personally actually rather liked the traditional services, but most church goers do not, as indicated by attendance in churches that offer both the older and the more modern services.
I've attended political causes and spent time with union members in union halls. But, these forums often become tedious. Lots of people have strong opinions which they want to express about issues they have little or no hope of influencing through the process they are taking part in. Most attendees come out of a sense of duty.
There are definite downsides to this demise. Communities without strong organizations are communities without strong leaders below the elected official level. The medical-transactional health care model for dealing with people's emotional issues is in many respects a poor substitute for the pastoral care, community based model. Churches are also patrons of music, the arts, and thought about what is right and wrong. Many provide basic socials services. Unions can address employment concerns that no single employee in a large organization has sufficient clout to deal with effectively. Groups allow people to build networks and find compatable friends quickly. Broadly purposed groups can mitigate a tendency towards single issue politics.
You don't need to be a PhD sociologist to know that voluntary organizations decline because they are failing to serve their members needs. But, alternatives to the organizations that are fading don't just spring up from nowhere. Societal institutions take time to build. My generation is essentially doing just that, trying to rebuild civil society from scratch. It will take time, but the new institutions will likely be defining elements of life a generation from now.