American Life: Alone vs. Retreated

American Life: Alone vs. RetreatedIn a 2003-2005 study, I found that Americans had retreated after long feeling disconnected, pushed out, and impotent in their communities and the nation; this retreat also followed a period in which people had lamented the state of affairs in the country and concluded they were not being heard and there were no clear paths for changing prevailing conditions. Thus, people made the decision to try and hold onto – to protect – whatever gains they had made in their lives. So they hunkered down. The election of Barack Obama provided hope to many people (though certainly not all) that the trajectory of the nation could change for the better. But quickly politics as usual reared its ugly head while the Great Recession gripped the nation. During this period, people felt their entire lives were upended and the American Dream had turned into a nightmare where rigged-rules for the wealthy and powerful won out.

This rapid, highly-disruptive, and fundamental change has once again shifted the reality and dynamic for people in the country – and their own narrative about what is happening in their lives.

  • While people once retreated into close knit circles of families and friends, they now feel alone. There are virtually no leaders and organizations they trust; even more, there are few people around them – including family and friends – who they feel they can rely on.
  • Our basic challenges have shifted from being focused on “politics, news media, and various institutions” to questions about people, their lives, and a sense of where they fit in the world.
  • The dilemma: people know they cannot go it alone moving forward – either to improve their own lives, or the life of the nation.

These insights come from the Harwood Institute’s update of our 1991 Main Street study, which we’ll release in June. Both studies have been done in partnership with our good friends at the Kettering Foundation. One last point just in case you’re wondering: Even as the economy has had some recent upticks in performance, people’s feelings of being alone and on one’s own have only seemed to deepen, according to our research.

As we get closer to releasing the report, I will be laying out more of the key findings AND their implications. For instance, what will it take to engage people when they feel so alone? Just what kind of entreaties, connections, pathways forward and actions can help us get on a new and better trajectory? What do people see as a way forward? Shedding light on these and other questions will be part of our updated Main Street.

The good news: there are productive and effective paths forward we can take.

If you’re interested in receiving a copy of Main Street and/or want to be part of our national tour when the report comes out, please email Jim Cooney at