Neighbours: everybody's got them, but do we need them? (source: via Susannah Birkwood)
Neighbours: everybody’s got them, but do we need them? (source: via Susannah Birkwood)

Fairfax’s Larissa Hall asks: Why don’t we want to know our neighbours? Apparently we’re less inclined than in the past to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbour, or just drop in unannounced for “a bit of idle chit-chat”. She says:

As we get busier and more globally connected, at least electronically, it seems many of us feel less and less of a need to talk to our neighbours. That’s if we even get as far as introducing ourselves.

Ms Hall doesn’t present much in the way of reliable hard evidence, but we know from Dr Andrew Leigh’s book, Disconnected, that neighbours aren’t as close as they once were:

Compared with respondents two decades earlier, the typical Australian in the 2000s has 1.5 fewer neighbours of whom they could ask a small favour, and three fewer neighbours on whom they could drop in uninvited.

So is it a serious problem that we don’t have as much interaction with our neighbours as we used to? I think there’s a simple explanation for much of that change; we don’t need our neighbours as much for companionship or help as we used to. Why? Because we have more options.

When she had young children, the social circle of my stay-at-home mum was largely confined to the women who were her immediate neighbours. This wasn’t an ideal arrangement because while they got along well, they were different ages and dispositions.

But then the rapid rise of female workforce participation meant my mum joined the workforce. That gave her an important interest away from home and the neighbourhood; and it greatly expanded her social life and circle of friends.

Then she got her driver’s license and a car; that meant she could now pretty much go where she liked and visit whoever she wanted. She could choose who she wanted to spend her time with; not surprisingly, she chose better matches than she was stuck with in the neighbourhood.

My dad used to spend a lot of time on weekends sharing tools and expertise with two or three other men in the street. It seemed they were always saving a dollar by working cooperatively on each other’s cars and houses. But the need for that cooperation weakened as they got older and a bit richer and as the technology got more complicated.

It started to make sense to have the car serviced professionally and home renovations done by tradies. Tools got cheaper, so it was practical to have one’s own set. Rising income meant more choices inside the home – television, computers – and more social activities outside the home. The reliance on neighbours for support and companionship weakened.

Nowadays we have a wealth of opportunities for social contact beyond the street, both real and electronic. We don’t even need to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar anymore. Stores are open for extended hours and we’ve got cars to get to them quickly. We’ve got freezers to stockpile foodstuffs. Preservatives mean even perishables like fresh milk have extended use-by dates.

We see our neighbours less often because we’re away more often too e.g. for holidays and business. Once that would’ve meant asking the neighbours to collect the newspaper and mail. But now many households get their ‘newspaper’ delivered electronically; and home-delivered mail is on the decline and set to disappear.

Children used to be a link between families in the same street, but that’s weakened as more children attend private school or out-of-zone schools. Children who’re driven to and from primary school have after-school plays with class-mates who live elsewhere in the suburb. Perhaps most importantly, the majority of households in Australia don’t have dependent children.

In his book, Andrew Leigh notes that in 1984, respondents said on average they had 7.1 neighbours of whom they could ask a small favour; in 2004 that had fallen to 5.7. Over the same period, the number they could drop in on uninvited fell from 9.9 to 6.4.

Even if the trend’s continued over the subsequent years, I don’t think there’s convincing evidence there’s a widespread problem. You only need a good relationship with one or two neighbours to bring your bins in or feed the chooks when you’re away. And Dr Leigh’s findings don’t mean households are significantly more reluctant than in the past to render assistance to their neighbours in an emergency, even if they only know them by sight.

There’s one group though that is reliant on their immediate neighbours for help with simple tasks like putting out bins; elderly residents with declining mobility. There’d be advantages in moving to group housing, but many insist on aging in place i.e. staying put for as long as possible, relying on family, social services and neighbours for assistance with difficult tasks.

My 96 y.o. father in law lives alone in the house he’s lived in for 60 years. He gets regular help with the bins from the forty-something couple next door, but if their property were redeveloped for townhouses or apartments like many others in the suburb, I’m not sure it would even occur to the new residents – probably young and single – to help him out. Perhaps it’s always been so when the demographics of neighbourhoods change, but the scale of urban consolidation and the aging population presents a new challenge.