It’s Not About You: Why social cohesion is more important than ever

As an economist, I am often asked to speak to groups about global, national and local economic conditions. It’s a familiar routine—l talk about jobs, unemployment, wages, price levels, interest rates, and even taxes. But lately, a different topic has crept into my presentations. More and more, I find myself talking about social cohesion. It’s really thrown me off because I’m not a sociologist and it’s not my area of expertise. I do know that social cohesion is important to well-functioning economies and societies.

Social cohesion occurs when members of a society cooperate with each other, connect in meaningful ways, and find ways to survive and prosper. Societies that lack social cohesion experience significant social conflict, rebellion movements, public upheaval and even violence. It’s difficult for an economy to thrive when the fabric of society is being torn asunder.

I feel a strong tug and pull occurring in American society today. A tension exists, and we don’t know exactly how to calm it. It’s the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the war over assault rifles, widening income disparities and political power plays. We operate in a world of divisions between generations, classes, races, sexes, political parties and other dividing lines, and then wonder why it is so hard to build a more perfect union.

Growing divisions

The challenge of our times can be found in three statistics I’ve been sharing in my economic presentations.

The first is the decline in manufacturing jobs. The U.S. has lost nearly one-third of its manufacturing jobs since 1995. Most of these job losses occurred because of automation, but globalization also played a role. Good, hardworking people lost their ability to make a gainful living. It’s been a mighty struggle for them to be retrained and find new work. Many haven’t succeeded. This has created a growing underclass.

A second data point is life expectancy at birth. If you look at Utah Department of Health data on life expectancy in Salt Lake City, you will see a huge disparity between the neighborhoods of Foothill and Glendale. A child born in Foothill is expected to live until 85 years of age. A child born in Glendale lives nearly 10 years less. That’s the ultimate disparity … a shorter life.

Finally, another shocking statistic is opioid use. We have four counties in Utah—Carbon, Iron, Kane and Sevier—where retail opioid prescriptions exceed the number of resident population! How does this happen?

Whether it’s opioid use, life expectancy at birth or the loss of manufacturing jobs, we face serious social challenges.

New York Times columnist David Brooks said in a recent column, “The great challenge of our moment is the crisis of isolation and fragmentation, the need to rebind the fabric of society that has been torn by selfishness, cynicism, distrust and autonomy.”

That’s pretty alarming commentary.

The greater good

A contrast exists between generations and a change is about to take place. The Baby Boomers will soon pass the baton of power to the Gen Xers and Millennials. Will the next generation be able to rebind the fabric of society?

I recently asked a group of college students what words characterized the times we live in. They offered words like division, polarization, discord, detachment, confusion and disruption. Many of them struggle to understand what is going on. Who can blame them?

There’s got to be a better way. I think a better way starts by getting outside of ourselves and thinking about something larger than self.

Many of you will remember the best-selling book published in 2002 called The Purpose Driven Life. The book sold over 30 million copies and inspired a generation of readers. The first sentence of the book says it all: “It’s not about you.” That’s an important mantra when it comes to social cohesion. The first step in creating greater social connection is to think more about others and the greater good and less about self.

The social commentator George Bernard Shaw once said, “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.” Let’s take this phrase to heart, link arms and create more social cohesion. If we do, I promise our economy will reward us for our efforts.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.