Forget trying to recreate close-knit communities of past – they never existed

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As affluence grew after the Second World War people leapt at the chance to live in a different way

The happy, close-knit communities some claim England had in the past are a myth and never existed, new research shows.

Critics of modern society claim new technology and new ways of living and working destroyed bonds between neighbours and families and led to damaging individualism and loneliness. But a new book argues communities were no stronger in the past, and people are still closely connected.

Me, Me, Me?, by University of Exeter historian Professor Jon Lawrence, shows how neighbours didn’t necessarily have better relationships when they lived and worked in closer proximity. Millions had no choice but to live in this way because of poverty or housing shortages and resented their lack of privacy. As affluence grew after the Second World War people leapt at the chance to live in a different way. Community is now based on genuine affection.

Professor Lawrence said: “It is now commonplace for some to think there were closer communities in the past, and these have collapsed because of materialism and selfish individualism. But the cosy, close-knit community we mythologize today never existed. Yes, poverty and close proximity obliged neighbours to look out for one another, but privacy remained jealously guarded, relations with neighbours were often fraught, and reliance on strangers, as opposed to family, was widely seen as a last resort. There was no golden age of community.”

Professor Lawrence re-examined the original testimony collected by social scientists conducting extensive surveys around the country from the 1940s to the 2000s to show how people have always sought to find a way to balance the competing claims of self and social connection.

In the past many single adults had no choice but to live as lodgers in someone else’s house; with relatives if they could, with strangers if not. But people always sought to protect the privacy of family life from neighbours and ‘outsiders’. Today thanks to the creation of new towns and suburbs on a mass scale (UK housing stock has quadrupled since 1901), more people can choose to live alone, but they can still be deeply connected with friends and family and can socialise more easily at home.

Professor Lawrence uses the experience of his own family in Somerset and Bristol to demonstrate how people’s life stories challenge conventional accounts of the ‘rise of individualism’ and the ‘end of community’ by reminding us that friendship, family, and place remain as central to our daily lives in the twenty-first century as they were at the end of the Second World War.

But change did happen. In the years after the Second World War people came increasingly to question the idea that their lives should be determined by custom and tradition. Community became more voluntary. New technologies such as the car, the telephone, and most recently the Internet, helped create different, more personalised, forms of community.

Professor Lawrence said: “Since the start of the new millennium, the rise of social media has simply accelerated trends towards greater social connectivity. We need to value and nurture these new forms of personal, chosen community, rather than simply lament the loss of supposedly better, more ‘real’, forms of community in the past. People are now better placed to sustain the relationships that matter to them.

“In the early twenty-first century most people are living lives that are socially much more connected than their ancestors seventy years ago. They have more leisure, more money, more mobility, more ways to communicate, and more space to entertain each other at home. Community doesn’t just survive, it flourishes, but because it often takes new forms—less constrained by geography, less formal—it is too swiftly dismissed by social commentators fixated on the old ways of living.”

The testimony was taken from people living in Bermondsey in 1947–9 and 1958–9, Bethnal Green in 1953 and 1955, Debden, Essex, in 1953 and 1955, Stevenage in 1959–60, Cambridge in 1961–2, Luton in 1962–4 and 1996-7, Tyneside in 1967–9 and 2007-8 and the Isle of Sheppey in Kent in 1978–88.

Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Post-war England is published by Oxford University Press.

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