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A substantial breakdown in social trust is possible over the next decade. Trends and events that impact the interpersonal, economic, and political aspects of society could cause this breakdown due to their effect on social capital. This type of breakdown is more likely to occur in societies with thinner layers of social capital than in societies with thicker layers.

Social capital is the cohesiveness required for societies to function. It includes how members of societies interact and cooperate with one another, especially strangers; the strength of their identification with society; the existence of shared values, norms, and understanding; and social trust. These elements of social capital are interrelated. For example, as interaction and cooperation decline, there is a lower possibility that members of society will have a shared identity. With decreased interaction and cooperation and a diminished shared identity across society, trust between people begins to break down. And it works the other way as the resulting reduction in social trust will cause people to interact and cooperate even less. On a positive note, the inverse is possible as well. Increased interactions can create a stronger identification with society, and this can strengthen social trust.

Societies with thick layers of social capital have meaningful and frequent cooperation and interactions between their members; strong identification with society; and shared values, norms, and understanding. This will typically lead to high levels of social trust. Societies with thin layers of social capital have lower levels of interaction and cooperation; weak identification with society; and disagreement about values, norms and understanding among groups within society. Thin layers of social capital make societies vulnerable to a substantial breakdown in social trust.

People in societies with thin layers of social capital are more likely to strongly identify with something other than a societal identity. Without a shared identity across society, people seek to be with those who share their identity. This can be achieved geographically, by choosing to live in certain places, but also through interactions and affiliations, both in person and on social media. Where and how we work, and even our commute to work, also impact social capital. Widespread remote work adopted during the pandemic will continue and expand in a post-pandemic world. This will limit interactions and cooperation between people who have different identities, which will weaken other aspects of social capital including social trust.

Events like pandemics, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks make gaps between different societal groups more visible and wider. Differing values and identities conflict as societies try to design policies to respond to a pandemic, deal with a scarcity of resources resulting from a natural disaster, and address the fear created by a terrorist attack. These conflicts weaken social capital as people recognize just how different their identifies, values, norms, and understandings are from those in other groups.

Threats to social capital will be bolstered by continued proliferation of sources of information that are strongly aligned with specific identities and algorithms that limit exposure to contrary views. Along with geographic separation, reduced in-person work interactions, and catastrophic events, these narrowly focused sources of information will lead to a fragmented society in terms of interactions, cooperation, identity, values, norms, and understanding. This provides fertile ground for a substantial breakdown of social trust.

Economic inequality can significantly diminish social capital, especially during recessions with impacts felt unevenly across society. This is happening during the current pandemic as the stock market continues to rise while some people are losing their jobs, being evicted, and standing in food lines for the first time. This might have a long-term effect on social capital, especially given memories from the Great Recession. The current recession, along with subsequent recessions or slower economic growth, will further reduce the frequency and quality of interactions and cooperation between different socioeconomic groups. This makes it more difficult to sustain a sense of shared identity, values, and norms as socioeconomic mobility is seen as out of reach for many. Those who feel the full force of the current recession and do not benefit from post-recession economic growth may come to see the economic system as unfair and beneficial to only a few.

Societies with thin layers of social capital and high inequality are also vulnerable to the impact of major economic restructuring and resulting job losses. This might come during the next decade in the form of a significant shift to clean energy or major advances in automation. Advances in automation are particularly likely given what has been learned during the pandemic. As with recessions, these transformations will impact society unevenly and undermine social capital. Those impacted are less likely to embrace a shared societal identity and the society’s values and norms, especially if society does not launch a comprehensive reskilling effort. Corruption and instability in financial markets, and the government’s inability to address them, would worsen the effect of inequality, recessions, and economic restructuring on social capital. All of this would strengthen and deepen the view that the economic system is unfair and would foster distrust among groups across society that are not benefiting from the current economic system.

Social capital is essential for the effective political functioning of societies. Those with thin layers of social capital already experience low levels of political cooperation between members of society and between those with different political ideologies who serve in government. Over time, political ideologies become less accommodating through limited interactions and vastly different values and norms. Those who do not share one’s identity and ideology are viewed with suspicion and distrust.

Government ineffectiveness or harm, especially when it is perceived to disproportionately impact certain groups, weakens already thin layers of social capital. Government ineffectiveness and harm surface during events such as excessive police force, inadequate responses to natural disasters, and ineffectiveness in helping workers adapt to economic changes. These actions and inactions can weaken shared identity and lead to reduced interactions and cooperation with certain groups of people and government officials along with a loss of faith in government. This sets the condition for a substantial breakdown of social trust.

Because social trust is an element of social capital, and because the elements of social capital are interrelated, social trust will typically begin to break down when other elements of social capital are negatively impacted. Over the next decade, current trends and events could negatively impact social capital and cause a substantial breakdown in social trust. Because societies with thick layers of social capital are less vulnerable to this possibility, it is in a society’s interest to thicken its layers of social capital.

© Chris Mayer 2021

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