This book focuses on how people’s engagement with civil society changes over the lifecourse. There has been growing concern in recent decades about the health of civil society. A lot of evidence points to an overall decline in civic participation – and in particular a lack of engagement by young people.
It is generally the older generations who are more likely to vote, to volunteer and to donate to charities. Young people are least likely to vote, to volunteer or to donate. In general, and in contrast to their elders, it is often claimed that young people lack a sense of social obligation and civic duty.
This book explores these claims through examining how lifecourse events both trigger and hinder participation in civil society. With contributions from ten researchers, each chapter explores levels of participation at different lifecourse stages and events – from school to university; from parenthood to grandparenthood; from retirement to concerns about what will happen after death.
Five key findings include:
- early adult life influences are very important in shaping later civic participation. The role of education and the intergenerational transmission of civic behaviours and attitudes, particularly during childhood, are especially significant.
- young people at school high have very high levels of civic engagement, especially in terms of charitable giving and volunteering. However, these activities are often instigated by the school and many young people are not entirely convinced their benefit. This must leave some doubt as to whether they will carry on doing these things into their adult life.
- University is also associated with fostering civic engagement – though some universities are better at this than others, and particular subject disciplines seem to both attract and encourage students that engage in civil society.
- Family commitments – becoming a parent and grandparent – also have a bearing on civic engagement – both positive and negative. Increased childcare commitments limit the amount of time available for civic activities. However, parenthood can also heighten sensibilities about the kind of world that children will grow up in that can trigger particular kinds of engagement.
- Retirement brings greater capacity to become active in civil society – though the demands that are often placed on older volunteers are such that their volunteering can often feel more like work.
In short, while the findings of this book do not support some of the more pessimistic predictions of the death of civil society, they do give some grounds for concern.
Because of the complex relationship between lifecourse stages and events, and levels and kinds of engagement, it is difficult to identify any clear ways forward. However, charities, voluntary sector organisations and other agencies concerned to protect and promote current levels of engagement need to be mindful of growing cynicism among both young and old about the extent to which charities are just like ‘big business’.
These organisations need to work hard to rebuild trust. Similarly, organisations that promote or make use of voluntary activity, need to make sure that it is indeed voluntary.
Finally, it is clear that managing the contingencies of family life can make engagement with civil society difficult – it is important that organisations develop family-friendly practices if they want to encourage participation across the lifecourse.