In the early 20th century, workers in the United States were coming to terms with a new economic system: large scale, urban industrial factory work. It was a new world, and many of the institutions that supported rural, agricultural communities did not address the challenges of factory workers. Out of this vacuum fraternal organizations like the Knights of Columbus and the Elks became popular.* They provided places for connection, learning and support. In short, they supported community.
Lesson: People need community. Period. And as the world changes around them, people will build institutions that provide community.
The world is changing again. Since the 1950′s, some of the most important institutions have been companies. It was normal to stay with one company for an entire career. For many people, the company was their platform for community.
But people are increasingly looking at companies skeptically. And people acknowledge more and more that it is unrealistic to expect to work for a single company for an entire career.
It looks to me like we are once again trying to figure out what institutions we need to help build communities that bridge the gap between the personal and professional. And I suspect that social media and the Internet will have a big role to play in helping us organize those communities.
I, for one, am very excited to see what we come up with.
*I learned this little history lesson about the Knights of Columbus and Elks from a recent episode of the On Point Radio Show.