Saturday, June 20, 2009

The graying of civic groups

Last Thursday the Lady Friend and I performed our literary dog-and-pony show before the Ontonagon County Historical Society. It was a Keynote (the Mac version of PowerPoint) show presented by means of a digital projector, and the 60-odd members of this Upper Michigan organization who attended seemed to enjoy it.

But I was struck by their average age, which had to be 75 or more. Not a single person under 60 seemed to be among the attendees.

Back in Chicago I've noticed the same thing: the members of long established civic organizations are growing older and older. I've watched as the Friends of Literature and the Friends of American Writers -- two historic Chicago groups that provided aid and succor to struggling poets and novelists -- aged, shrank and disappeared. Even the Society of Midland Authors, made up of active writers, seems to be growing grayer and grayer.

Where are the young people?

It's the Lady Friend's opinion that they are satisfying their social urges on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other Internet venues., the Web site that lists all sorts of informal organizations that provide actual meeting places to visit in person, is probably another.

A good friend says she thinks today's young adults have become more self-oriented rather than other-directed and are less apt to join and give money to civic outfits. Maybe this is true -- I don't know.

Could it be that the ever more intense pace of modern life cuts into the time two-breadwinner families are able to allot to art, history and good works? What about the declining importance of art and history subjects in today's elementary and high schools? The economic downturn may have something to do with it, too.

What do you think?


  1. I don't think it's an issue of younger people becoming less active in civic organizations. I know many people, most of them younger than my 39 years, who are very involved with a number of groups. I have to say, though, that none of them (so far as I know) are involved in groups that support literature or art.

    Young people today have grown up in front of the television. People who had to entertain themselves with literature or art before television took over naturally have a greater appreciation for those things.

    Case in point: My grandmother (in her 70's) keeps the television in a back room and only turns it on when she wants to watch a particular program. Three of her four great-grandchildren never turn it off. Thankfully, my daughter is the oddball. She's been known to skip the television in favor of music or books. Maybe that will catch on with others in her generation. We can only hope.

  2. almost all my friends gave money to the obama campaign. but almost none of my friends have a moment nof time for actually going anywhere, except out socially once in a while. facebook is full of clubs, lit and art discussions, etc... you can participate for five or ten minutes and then be on to the next thing. i think L.F. is right. it's not that kids aren't involved, its that, like in the Gods Must Be Crazy, we've made our lives too complicated to sit in a room for two hours.

  3. Audiences at theater performances are aging also. My Lady Friend and I were at the Light Opera Works (Evanston) recently ("A Little Night Music"), and felt like we were in the youngest group. And as you know, Henry, I am a card carrying geezer.We had noticed this audience aging at other theater venues also.

    And I do not twitter, facebook, etc. etc. I read for pleasure.

  4. PS: As for volunteer organizations, we have a cross section. Part of that is because one is in the Public Safety sector (which is a whole 'nother story); the other is in theater. The theater board that I belong to was trying to get out of the ACTORS / MUSCIANS rut and get some business / front office types (me) on the board.

  5. Read "Bowling Alone," which came out a few years ago. (The situation has undoubtedly gotten worse.)

    Beyond that -- yes, many community orgs' audiences / members are getting old. I know cuz I'm in some of them ... only retirees have the time and ability to show up for weekly lunch or even monthly board meetings.

    Old joke about Rotary was that it is a club for old men and their fathers... Not really a joke any more.