Book Review: Our Kids by Robert Putnam

15 February 2016

Book Review: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam, New York: Simon & Schuster

By Rachael McKeown


Robert Putnam is a world renowned social scientist, famously publishing on the decline of civic engagement within American society and elevating the topic of social capital within policy circles. In his book Bowling Alone (2000), Putnam caught the imagination of policy makers around the world as he looked at the idea of social capital, its changing character and implications for American society.

He defined social capital as:

features of social organisation, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions’ (Putnam, 1993, p.169)

Putnam pictures social capital as a highly significant resource of value to individuals and to society and argued both that it had diminished in the United States over preceding decades and that communities could act to achieve societal gains by re-establishing connections and fostering networks.

Putnam’s work resonates with employer engagement in education as he argues that the labour market has changed over recent decades to the detriment of young people. Increasingly, young people (‘our kids’) are struggling to traverse the school-to-work transition. Thus, Putnam argues that social capital can be of high utility in aiding youths seeking employment, as social connections commonly enable access to entry positions and provide experiences of use with trusted professionals and mentors.

Putnam’s approach invokes the work of fellow American sociologist Mark Granovetter who has also explored the economic value of social relationships and networks. He argues that people are connected to each other in either ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ forms and bridges can be drawn to create communities and harness access to different information or resources. Granovetter (1973) posits that individuals with many ‘weak’ ties are better connected than those with a few ‘strong’ ties. ‘Strong’ ties are likely to connect individuals of similar socio-economic backgrounds, knowledge and beliefs, whilst ‘weak’ ties draw together varied individuals. This means that having access to ‘weak’ ties widens a person’s access to new information and thus increasing their valuable elements of social capital. In Getting a Job (1974), Granovetter discuses ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ routes to job acquisition. ‘Informal’ routes are largely through personal contacts (‘weak ties’) and are much more likely to yield better job satisfaction and higher rates of pay. Such arguments are resonate in the work of Putnam writing forty years later  as he demonstrates the ways in which young people with better connections and social capital are likely to reap greater economic and social rewards.

In Bowling Alone Putnam used indicators of everyday social interactions to evidence the character of social networks, reporting, for example, over the period 1950 to 2000, 58% declines in attendance of group meetings, 43% declines in family dinners and a 35% decline in inviting friends over for dinner – all signifying reductions in social capital and the atomisation of U S society. Such theorisations paved the way for Putnam to become a Presidential adviser, influencing the introduction of the Serve America Act, which increased the number of those willing to ‘serve’ their country as volunteers. Additionally, as part of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University, Putnam has developed the Better Together organisation, which provides tools and opportunities for people to connect with each other.

Recently, Putnam published Our Kids (2015) which draws upon testimonies of lived experience from his own home town, Port Clinton, Ohio, and other locations across the US. The narratives track experiences of select individuals from childhood to adulthood and compares the stories of two generations of Americans. He looks at the trajectories of his school friends, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and that of their children’s generation. By comparing the two groups, Putnam argues that social mobility has declined across generations and that an ‘opportunity gap’ has emerged between generations. It is tough now to be young in America. Whereas in his own generation he finds plentiful evidence of individuals living lives of upward social mobility – the ‘American Dream’, for their children life has very often become significantly more difficult and especially for those outside of the professional middle-class.

The initial sample for Our Kids was interviews with a dozen of Putnam’s classmates from Port Clinton, along with a written survey of his entire class. The sample was extended to: Duluth, Minnesota; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Austin, Texas; Bend, Oregon; Orange County, California; and Waltham and Weston, Massachusetts – an attempt to represent the diversity of America. In total 107 young people (aged 18-22) and at least one of their parents were interviewed, across a two year period from 2012 to 2014. Putnam supplemented his qualitative data with publically available national datasets to conduct quantitative analysis.

Our Kids accounts a slightly different message to Bowling Alone, arguing that social capital is not only still on the decline but it is unevenly distributed across society. As Putnam has argued previously, greater levels of social capital grant access to wider networks and afford greater levels of opportunity. He illustrates the point through the ways in which teenagers might once have met enormously helpful mentors through social institutions like churches, trade unions or through part-time employment, but now were much less likely to step out of their immediate social circles and cross the boundaries of social class. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, this valuable form of social capital is more commonly found in abundance among those in the wealthier socio-economic categories of society. The benefits of social capital are becoming increasingly exclusive to those who are already successful. Putnam argues that without social capital developing among the deprived socio-economic groups of society then the ‘American Dream’ is unrealistic, as economic opportunities become constrained to limited social groups.

Putnam argues that this is a modern phenomenon, as his own generation while experiencing deep and troubling racial inequalities, also exhibited high degrees of social equality and interactions across white social groups. They interacted socially and gained value from their social networks, contributing to economic and social mobility. Those children who do not have access to such social capital, and thus opportunity, are likely to mix with other children from very similar backgrounds. For example, one interviewee, Don (born in 1959), was a working-class child whose parents “didn’t have a clue” about college but he had strong ties to church and a local minister helped him with financial aid applications and the college admissions process. Comparatively, David (2012), whose father is in prison and has limited contact with his mother, has aspirations of higher education but has no understanding of how to achieve this. Instead, David has a criminal record and finds it difficult to secure anything more than a temporary job.

In Our Kids, Putnam highlights mentors as a significant resource who can address the ‘savvy gap’ of young people. The ‘savvyness’ of a person is defined as their ability to understand the opportunities available to them in the labour market and how to realistically meet their goals to attain a particular job. Those who are less ‘savvy’ are likely to be misaligned; they are unaware of opportunities available to them and how to successfully fulfil their career ambitions. Mentors are seen as a possibility to plug the ‘savvy gap’ by offering trusted and appropriate advice to young people. Putnam, however, identifies a ‘mentoring gap’ that is similar to the ‘opportunity gap’ in that young people from wealthier backgrounds are much more likely to have access to wider networks and so able to obtain mentoring relationships of ultimate economic value.

Similarly, Yates and colleagues (2011) have analysed risk factors that influence the likelihood of British teenagers later becoming not in employment, education or training (NEET) and highlight inability to successfully manage their transition from school-to-work as a major barrier – a lack of ‘savvyness’. They observe a ‘fractured’ labour market transition for ‘misaligned’ young people. A reported 39% of boys and 41% of girls aspired to enter careers typically requiring entry qualifications beyond their own expected qualifications, a factor significantly associated with the chances of becoming NEET for these individuals. Specifically, for students of lower socio-economic backgrounds (SES) ambitions were twice as likely to be misaligned.

Putnam identifies that 62% of poorer children do not have access to mentors beyond their family circle, despite the fact that they are those most likely to benefit from their input. Mentors from within family circles of advantaged children are likely to be highly valuable, due to their experience and expertise, while family members of poorer children may have limited personal experience of professional roles. Furthermore, due to the higher levels of social capital among the socio-economically advantaged groups these children report greater access to informal mentors through their extended networks, something unavailable to poorer children. Putnam notes that middle- and upper-class young people/teenagers are two to three times more likely to experience informal mentoring. This means that deprived children are more likely to rely upon methods of formal mentoring, that which is supplied by schools or organisations. However, formal mentoring is infrequent across the US – in a 2013 survey only 15% of young people reported receiving formal mentoring. Formal mentoring that does occur is also likely to span a shorter time frame and so the benefits of it may be less than its informal counterpart. All factors combining results in a lack of sufficient mentoring for disadvantaged children, which in turn contributes to their later lack of opportunity.

Within the UK setting, moreover, Norris and Francis have described the ways in which students attending Further Education Colleges from disadvantaged backgrounds, with low stocks of social capital, are reliant upon teachers for honest and appropriate career advice and provision of work experience opportunities. Young people without access to networks alongside poor careers education in colleges are likely to witness fractured school-to-work transitions, experiencing similar barriers to disadvantaged youths in the US.

In considering solutions to problems of poor social mobility, Putnam is critical of the policy assumption  that the ‘American Dream’ can be achieved by expanding university attendance, encouraging ‘college for all’ high-school students. Successful college attendance, he finds, is often a luxury for wealthier children as many young people are confronted with barriers to both entry and completion. Nearly half of US children are entering community college after their high school education, largely because of its benefits in low costs, proximity to the home environment and part-time education providing the opportunity to work alongside learning. Community colleges, however, are often underfunded and so the disadvantaged young people who attend are not receiving high quality levels of education and appropriate career guidance. Putnam reports that two thirds of students are dropping out of community college education before completion. These factors result in few numbers of young people from disadvantaged background studying at degree-level and reveal ‘college for all’ to be an effective a myth.

Putnam has noted a correlation between increasing policy assertions of ‘college for all’ and declining investment in vocational and technical education pathways. At the time of writing, the US typically spent one tenth as much as international counterparts on vocational learning, despite international examples consistently highlighting wide economic benefits alongside individual gains from investment in this area. Putnam believes that the rise of the National Academies Foundation in the US may increase vocational education levels, with 2,500 in operation. These are institutions which offer an alternative curriculum that combines academic work with hands-on technical courses, with local employers providing work experience placements and classroom interaction. A controlled trial found that enrolled students of were likely to report, eight years after leaving high school wages, on average, 11% higher than young people who did not attend, with a 16% difference for young men. While benefits may be drawn, Putnam highlights reason for caution. Vocational education remains stigmatised within society and are often viewed as pathways for disadvantaged children, whilst college education remains the domain of the advantaged. There is the risk of creating a two-tier education system that further separates the ‘opportunity gap’ and divides the social mobility levels of different groups.

Putnam supports schools developing links with community groups and the Community School movement within the US:

Another broad approach to education as a means of narrowing the opportunity gap derives from the long tradition of educational reformers (dating back to the work of John Dewey in Chicago during the Progressive Era) who emphasize links between schools and the community … Typically, community schools include youth activities at all hours and programs to engage parents and community members actively in the educational process as well as to link children and families to social service and health agencies. Similar schools are found in many other countries, like the United Kingdom, where evaluations have been very positive, especially for kids and communities facing difficulties, even though the program is expensive.’

These examples of mentoring and vocational education highlight the ways in which social capital has become divided in modern US society. Those who ‘have’ social capital ‘have’ access to many more opportunities, while those without are run higher risks of becoming trapped in a world offering limited opportunities. John Field (2003) too has noted the ways in which social capital is not only an enabling factor of success, it can also serve to reproduce inequalities already present within society. Arguably, Our Kids does not fully explore the structural economic and political inequalities that underlay the unequal division of social capital within society. Manufacturing decline and globalisation have dramatically altered economies over the last generation, which has limited opportunities that are now available to young people.

To Putnam, it is essential for the power of social capital as a resources to be recognised and harnessed to challenge inequality and to support greater social mobility. Putnam evokes the powerful image of imagining ‘our kids’ as a collective, not only our biological children but all children of the nation – our future economy depends upon the success of all of ‘our kids’.

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