Age In Which Written Letters Are Obsolete Forces Postal Service To Plan Deep Cuts

August 07, 2009|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,joseph.burris@baltsun.com

As the U.S. Postal Service considers closing hundreds of post offices nationwide to save money, one question looms, especially for those 25 and younger: Who'd notice?

During her freshman year at the University of Richmond, Kaitlyn McDowell enjoyed receiving the occasional letter with a care package from younger cousins.

Beyond that, though, the 19-year-old from Ellicott City mostly corresponds by e-mail, text messaging and social networking, like many of her generation.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Friday about post office closings incorrectly stated which school Kaitlyn McDowell of Ellicott City attends. She is a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The Sun regrets the error.

"It's easier. You don't have to go through the trouble of getting stamps, writing the letter, sealing it and taking it to the post office," said McDowell.

The paperless preferences of McDowell and her peers reflect a generational shift from a time when letter writing was a preferred form of communication. It's one of the reasons the U.S. Postal Service, which has projected a net loss of more than $7 billion at the end of this fiscal year, is considering closing hundreds of post offices.

The postal service says that third-quarter mail volume is down 7 billion pieces, or 14 percent, compared with a year ago - the largest consecutive third-quarter drop in total volume since 1971. To offset the resulting budget crunch, officials are also considering discontinuing Saturday deliveries and eliminating some classes of stamps. They say that some collection boxes are already being removed from city streets, in part because they contain just 25 or fewer pieces of mail within a given period.

Yet for many twentysomethings and teens who have grown up on digital media, post offices and collection boxes are about as vital as pay phones.

That's a sharp contrast from an assembled group of residents of the Oak Crest Village retirement community in Parkville. These senior citizens can remember when everyone wrote letters and looked forward to receiving them.

One Oak Crest Village resident, Thomas Foster, co-wrote three mathematics textbooks, each 350 pages long, that were written by hand and mailed to a publishing company in New York.

When asked how many communicate through social networking services such as Facebook, only a few of the senior citizens raised their hands. A few turned to their neighbors and asked, "What is that?"

That generation gap in correspondence has been a blow to the postal industry. Officials say the decline can be traced to everything from the telephone industry's deregulation, which made calls cheaper, to more women leading busier lives outside the home, to consumers doing more business online.

Nancy Pope, historian for the National Postal Museum in Washington, said that these days, most people enjoy receiving a letter for special occasions. For all other correspondence, they prefer digital media.

"I don't see letter writing headed for extinction because I see enough people in their 20s and 30s rediscover the love for writing," said Pope, "but there's no way the Postal Service is going to create a budget based on twentysomethings rediscovering writing letters."

Ironically, the National Postal Museum is housed in the old City Post Office building, which served as one of Washington's primary postal facilities from 1914 to 1986 (it still houses a small post office).

Martin Kasey, 25, of Baltimore said that some of his friends still treasure letter writing, but he doesn't share in their passion.

"I wrote home to my parents from camp; that was it," he said.

McDowell, who says she writes a letter about once a month, says, "I would definitely miss Saturday mail, but I wouldn't miss having a post office."

Some educators say that because the digital medium is preferred, the letters young people do write show that they never learned to differentiate between the formal and personal, the colloquial and standard.

"One of my complaints is not teaching young people about writing e-mails appropriately," said Laurie Henry, assistant professor of early adolescent literacy at the University of Kentucky. "They're taking text messages and applying an e-mail format. Formal and informal online communication should look like a letter."

Handwriting specialists argue that as more people chose typing over penning correspondence, they undermined business skills such as writing in cursive and folding a letter.

"You can't always depend on technology. You want the communication that suits the communication purpose," said Jan Z. Olsen, founder of Handwriting Without Tears, a curriculum-based program in Cabin John that teaches students and educators handwriting skills. "There are places where texting is the best way or using a phone is best or e-mails are best."

Handwriting Without Tears involved its students nationwide in the letter-writing process earlier this year by sending 35,000 letters to new President Barack Obama. Olsen said that her company has flourished as schools abandoned letter writing.

Most of the seniors at Oak Crest Village say that they enjoy getting handwritten letters from grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Still, they notice how times have changed.

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