The past 50 years have seen significant changes in social patterns and behaviors which have resulted in adjustments in modern-day life styles and the way we relate to the natural world. These changes have challenged our various institutions to make major adjustments in management principles in order to meet the needs of their clientele. Even our religious institutions are experiencing shrinking participation in membership as a result of changing social norms. Prior to moving to Virginia, a year and a half ago, we attended a small rural United Methodist church in Michigan. The United Methodist church is an organized religious denomination with an overhead organization divided into national and state conferences, districts and finally, local church charges. Most Christian denominations in the United States have been experiencing declining membership for some time, and are searching for ways to encourage new membership. My involvement with the small church in Michigan and pressure from Conference leadership, triggered my interest in how social changes were impacting our religious institutions. Statistical data showed significant changes in participation in Sunday religious gatherings. Nationwide data indicates that slightly over 80% of U. S. citizens say they believe in a God yet, only 12% actively participate in church programs. This is a significant reduction in church attendance from the 1940’s and 50’s. Why?
I fell back to my old training which said, you must first define the problem before you start searching for solutions! The Conference was definitely not following this logic. They were developing teams to go to the individual churches and help them build plans and solutions to attract new members which was resulting in limited success.
I began looking at changes I have experienced in social interactions and soon learned these changes were influencing much more than just church activities. Social change was also resulting in alienating our connection to the natural world, mobility of employees in the work force and the necessity of considering career needs of both spouses. The biggest change was in where people live with rural residency shrinking rapidly and a major shift to urban life. In 1900, the U. S. census bureau figures showed that 40% lived in urban cities and 60% lived in rural locations. By 1950 these statistics had flipped, showed 64% were urban dwellers and 36% were rural residents, and today 81% live in urban cities and only 19% remain in rural communities and locations. This means the vast majority of our people are now living in the concrete jungles of metropolitan cities and are losing their connection to the land and natural world. Additionally, urban living has intensified the stress level within our life’s and has forced us to prioritize the limited amount of time available each week. There are but 168 hours in each week of which about 56 hours are spent sleeping, 48 hours at work and lunch and as much as 12 hours commuting to and from work. That leaves just 52 hours for all the other chores, duties and family needs. Increased societal demands are competing for the 52 hours of so-called free time, forcing us to decide what we must do and what can we give up. Any institution or organization attempting to secure your involvement, must offer benefits or values that move them up the priority list and something else must fall off. We are told there has never been a time in our history when our population has lived a more stressful life style.
Financing our educational programs has also required major changes demanding more evening and weekend time and support from parents if their children are to participate in extracurricular activities. Concentrating people in close living conditions has increased stress levels, class size and complicated class discipline and even catastrophic events like school shootings. I recognize that cable news covers 24 hours a day now but, I simply do not recall these problems being of concern back in the 1950’s. Children today fear for their safety going to school and are met at the school door by uniformed armed guards. I cannot imagine the emotional impact this has, particularly on the young elementary students.
The other major change effecting our education system has been the reduction in financial support for our public education schools. The primary cause has been significant reductions in federal financial support resulting from major loss of revenue as a result of tax cuts for the wealthiest members of our society. When tax burdens are cut incoming revenues are reduced and budget reductions are required. Politicians look for cuts that are the least visible to voters which include items like federal grant money for education and infrastructure. Schools have been forced to reduce programs and services which has placed increased time burdens on parents. Parents now must provide many of the educational materials at their expense and provide transportation and supervision for weekend sports and extra-curriculum activities, which cuts deeply into the so called 52 hours of free time.
Today, we are involved in a stressful race to complete our duties and responsibilities within the limited hours that exist, for there is no way to create more hours. Prioritizing every minute is now essential and not well done as we race into the next day worried about what might interrupt our plans. This is just the changes in our educational system, what about the other life-style changes that have occurred? The next blog will look at other changing social values that are pulling us away from our connection to the land and the natural world.