One of the earliest things that tipped me off to the social-cultural differences between rising vs. falling-crime times was data from the National Park Service showing a steady decline in overnight park visits, and in recreational as opposed to other kinds of park visits. They took off during the '60s and wiggled around until the early '90s, falling afterward.
But they aren't going completely unused. Here are some patterns I've noticed about park use these days.
Teenagers and young adults are almost never there. Hanging out in public spaces has vanished off the map of activities that young people pursue. I mean, why have fun around new people when you could be jogging on one of your many virtual treadmills? Liking status updates, leaving prissy/bitchy comments, leveling up video game characters, checking your texts, etc.
Mostly the age groups are parents of children and their children. Adolescents and young adults probably feel too embarrassed to show up with their folks, while the children are happy to get out and do something for once. Children don't play with one another, only their family members. If Millennials weren't so awkward and dorky, they'd just show up on their own, without their parents. I remember the older Gen X kids doing that in the '80s -- totally normal. But what can you expect from kids who are uninterested in even getting a driver's license?
I detailed some of the places that young people do like to hang out at here, like the library. (Hold on to your hats, folks.) Continuing the ideas in that post, I think Millennials don't like hanging out at the park because they're so self-conscious about their image. What are all those strangers going to think if you're not wearing the right brand of earbuds as you block out the outside world? And forget hanging out with your shirt off -- unless you've leveled yourself up to swole hulk status, you'd be too pathetic for everyone else to see. Or whatever the equivalent is for girls -- your legs wouldn't look like the Victoria's Secret models.
Back in the '80s, no one gave a second thought to taking off that uncomfortable shirt during a warm or hot afternoon. Children playing outside, teenagers socializing at the park, grown men doing yard work. Millennials really are more psychologically paralyzed about how strangers will evaluate their body. Seems to go along with their perfectionism, like how OCD people wouldn't have anyone over unless the house looked 100% spotless. Anything less is shameful.
And it's not as though they're responding thoughtfully to actual evaluations from others. Like if you were fat and gross and took your shirt off, and everyone looked at you weird, and you decided not to do so in the future. They're not even putting themselves out there in the first place. They're over-protecting themselves from hypothetical -- imaginary -- evaluations, not responding to real-life feedback from others. Just like how they rarely talk to, flirt with, or ask out someone of the opposite sex -- fear of potential rejection.
Don't mean to always be ragging on the neo-Silent Generation, but they do show the most striking changes from their counterparts of just 20 years ago. I can't help noticing all this stuff because they're not that much younger than my generation, yet they seem to come from another planet.
Moving into the mid-to-late 20-somethings (the early Millennials), you don't see too many of them either. They're generally doing something in isolation, like jogging laps or pretending to be social by sitting in a public area, though with earbuds jammed in their head and staring down at some screen the whole time. They've already turned coffee shops into campus computer clusters, so why not the park? Yep, even parks are free wi-fi zones nowadays.
Adults without children are not as conspicuously absent as adolescents, but still under-represented. You hardly ever see senior citizens either. They used to be everywhere -- the park, the mall (all day, every day), the cafeterias, interacting with schoolchildren through partnerships with the local senior center. Now old people are totally cut off from the rest of society. Public spaces are supposed to bring together all generations, and not seeing old people at the park limits its communal feel.
The exceptions in these age groups, when they aren't odd individuals, tend to be couples, rather than peer groups. A famous eye-opening study detailed the drastic decline in the number of friends that people have, comparing 1985 to 2004 in the General Social Survey. Here, a "friend" is someone who you discuss important matters with. Aside from the quantitative drop in number of friends, there was a qualitative shift away from peers and toward family members and spouses / partners.
That change stands out very loudly at the park. There are only a handful of peer groups playing sports, and the occasional group of attention whores doing wacky-zany activities. Even among these few groups, they're rarely socializing, kicking back, hanging out. And then there are those engaged in clearly isolated activities (jogging laps, etc.).
So, the park now mostly belongs to families and potential families. There's partner-partner interaction, and parent-child interaction, but hardly anything else. Certainly very little family-family interaction. Not with helicopter parents. Your kid is a potential corruptor of all the years of hard work they've put into perfectly programming their own kid. There are occasional superficial exchanges between family units, but actually making new friends and acquaintances -- um, that would be kind of creepy.
When we took my nephew to Chuck E. Cheese's over Christmas vacation, I felt the exact same vibe. The park in the 21st century is a great big McDonalds Playland, ringed by a treadmill for the childless not-so-youngsters. It used to include people from all walks of life, like the pool scenes from The Sandlot (set in the early '60s) or the mall scenes from Saved by the Bell (in the early '90s). But when nobody trusts anybody else, they'll only venture out into public spaces with their kin or their partners. Paranoia and awkwardness are simply too pervasive to allow solid peer groups to form.