Today, on International Volunteer Day, we face a paradox. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has made us more connected and globalized than ever before, yet it is also shaping an age of civic disengagement.
In his bestseller Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam identified a sharp rise in Americans’ civic disengagement over the last generation, with empty town hall meetings reflecting “a giant swing toward the individualist pole in our culture, society, and politics.” Although it is twenty years old, it is still starkly relevant today: a new study by two psychologists in a Public Library of Science journal has proposed that “the more someone uses a smartphone for information, the less likely they are to trust neighbours, strangers, and people from other religions or nationalities.”
Our use of technology is just one factor driving changes in the world of work, but this correlation is bad news for advanced democracies, because strong civic life is a good predictor of the quality of, and trust in, public institutions. Against increasing solitude and disengagement from public life, what are some antidotes to this modern malaise?
One possible cure is a return to the original social networks supplanted by smartphones - volunteer organizations. These can help members stay ahead of the developments that are already happening with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as well as the trends explained in this year’s World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report. The report asked the Chief Human Resources Officers of today’s largest employers to identify the core drivers of change in their industries up to 2020.
Forty-four percent of respondents saw changing work environments and flexible working arrangements as the leading socioeconomic driver of change, with organizations “likely to have an ever-smaller pool of core full-time employees for fixed functions.” Despite its obvious benefits, this flexibility, and the fast-growing sharing economy, epitomized by industry-disrupting companies such as Uber and Airbnb, also comes with many risks for workers. These can include unpredictable working hours, limited access to social benefits, and a decrease in the right to freedom to negotiate and associate.
Through community projects and the mentorship of fellow members, volunteer groups can provide a buffer to this corrosion of civic life, an invaluable source for networking, and a training ground for the skills required to prosper in an environment where “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist’”.
The importance of volunteerism is also reflected in the paradigm shift taking place in attitudes to philanthropy - the new gold standard is to build social good into your business model, rather than regard corporate social responsibility as a discretionary add-on to a company’s core operations.
As a result, the private sector is starting to see innovative approaches to incentivize volunteering as one solution to empower employees and provide meaningful outlets to engage with the causes that are important to them. For example, professional services company Deloitte offers its employees unlimited hours of time off for volunteering. The healthcare company Novo Nordisk builds social and community service into its projects, while technology company Salesforce leverages “1% of employee time, technology and resources” for community projects as part of its “integrated philanthropy” model. Over 9,000 companies have signed on to the UN Global Compact, an initiative to involve the private sector in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in spreading responsible business practices.
For our well-being and that of our communities, the new social networks formed in voluntary service organizations which take on some of the world’s great challenges, from disease eradication to alleviating poverty, can replace the networks we have lost in modernity.
They are relevant for the 10.6 million Americans over 65 who want to stay active, engaged, and give back to society. They also give purpose to 87% of the approximately 80 million millennials living in the US today who want to make an impact and volunteer, but are often turned off by traditional institutions.
The power of these networks as a force for good is substantial, and can be defined in three ways.
First, empirical research attests to the value of what social network theorists call “weak bonds” - the “networks of people from different walks of life, casual acquaintances and friends of friends.” These weak bonds, fostered by volunteer organizations, “have the greatest potential to deliver longer-term material gains, such as employment opportunities.”
This is closely related to the second positive impact of re-engaging in civic life through social impact groups. They are an insurance policy against the changing world of work, in which “digital flows of data and information – which were practically nonexistent just 15 years ago – now exert a larger impact on GDP growth than the centuries-old trade in goods.”
The third important value of volunteer organizations is their strength as a bulwark against civic apathy and social isolation. The first glaring measure of a decline in civic life is low levels of political engagement. In a 2015 Pew calculation, the U.S. “land[ed] 31st among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states.” The chart below shows the US’ low standing in election turnout based on estimated voting-age population, a useful comparative measure as turnout based on percentage of registered voters represents a smaller share of potential voters in the U.S.
In the UK, we can see a clear divide in participation between different generations. Around 64% of registered voters aged 18-24 participated in the UK’s referendum on EU membership, compared to 90% of over-65s.
So what does this comparatively low level of youth turnout tell us? We do know that disengagement has a social and psychological cost. One third of Americans over the age of 45 admit to feeling lonely at times, and several studies link social isolation with cognitive decline and illness.
In fact, evidence points to the fact that the problem may even be more acute among young people -– in the UK, a 2010 study “found 18 to 34-year-olds were more likely to feel lonely more often than the over-55s.”
This is where the third and perhaps most important value of volunteer organizations comes into play - put simply, they’re good for you.
Putnam asked if friendship can have a greater impact on life expectancy than quitting smoking, and he concluded that it’s a close call: “Joining and participating in one group cuts your odds of dying over the next year in half.”
As a result, smart volunteering offers a model of active, long-term friendship that can temper the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and ensure we are no longer “bowling alone”.