When I was a youngster, being sent next door to borrow anything from a cup of sugar to a spare battery was a regular occurrence. When we went on holiday, we left our keys with the neighbours who would pop in to water the plants and clear our post. We knew all our neighbours to say hello to and even now, years later, I could tell you who lived where, what kids they had and about any significant events in my neighbours' lives.
I have my own family now and my own house in a nice residential street in peaceful suburbia. Yet, I am ashamed to admit that I barely know the names of more than a couple of neighbours. I would never knock on their door to borrow anything and rarely exchange more than a polite hello with most of them.
It seems I am not alone. New research suggests that community spirit is dying. Less than 10% of us would go round and introduce ourselves to a new neighbour, and half of us, like me, wouldn't dream of knocking on a neighbour's door to borrow something like a pint of milk or cup of sugar. Fewer than a quarter of us would leave a spare set of keys with our neighbours these days and a fifth of us admit to not knowing the names of a single neighbour; worse than that, a quarter of us never even speak to a single neighbour week on week.
There are a number of factors that have contributed to the decline of the community. For a start, we all seem to be so busy these days - time-poor and hurry-sick, as we struggle to juggle work, family and social life. It was probably the women of the family in the past who most kept the glue of community relationships together, but with women today far more likely to be working outside of the home, there is little time left for chatting over garden fences or popping round to a vulnerable neighbour with a hearty home-cooked casserole.
Social media must have a role to play too. Our communities are virtual now, not real. When everyone is our virtual neighbour, we have less need for real neighbours. And anyway, we are far too busy checking our notifications and updating our statuses to pay much attention to the real people in our street (unless they are on Facebook, of course). As we hurry out our front door, jabbing at our devices, we have little time or inclination to glance up to notice our neighbours. This lack of time might also be why society is more individualistic these days too; the 'me' generation, with its inward focus on self-interest, means that we are less concerned with the collective good in favour of furthering our own needs and desires. Such self-interest does not a community make.
Higher car use today, combined with the loss of local amenities like the corner shop and post office, means that we are less likely to stroll around our neighbourhoods and have the opportunity to bump into anyone. Mothers used to spend hours of their week pushing prams and shopping trollies down their street, catching up for a gossip with others in their neighbourhood as they did so. Hopping from house to car affords far less opportunity to get to know the locals today.
Having cars also means that we are far more geographically mobile than we used to be. This means that we are far less reliant on those who live near us for social, emotional and practical support. Run out of coffee? Far easier to nip to the nearest 24/7 in the car than to bother your neighbours (who are probably out or busy anyway). And who needs to share their problems with the local neighbourhood gossip when we can just tell all our friends at once on Facebook?
Perhaps the death of community in modern Britain does not matter to most of us, but when it comes to the elderly or vulnerable, it suddenly becomes more significant. According to the research, only a quarter of us has ever checked up on an elderly or vulnerable neighbour in bad weather and even fewer offer to do their shopping or help out in other ways. With so many people no longer living close by their own ageing parents, neighbourliness is something that we are likely to rely on more, not less today. And, wouldn't it be nice to know that we could turn to our neighbours in an emergency, such as if our toilet broke (two thirds of us would not even knock on a neighbour's door then to use their loo!).
There is a glimmer of hope; forty per cent of people admit that they would like to get to know their neighbours better. And, community spirit does seem to increase with age, though it is not clear if that trend is due to people becoming more community-minded as they get older, or whether older people, brought up without Facebook, always were that way inclined. Community events like street parties for the Queen's Jubilee in 2012, were also instrumental in putting the spirit back in the community.
One thing is clear; none of us should be ready to see the death of our communities. Whether it be borrowing sugar, checking on the elderly or yes, even using their loo, to quote the famous theme tune from the 80s, everybody needs good neighbours.Suggest a correction