In a crosspost from izwe.com, Richard Wilson asks: will people have time for the Big Society?
Thanks for taking the time to read this; I know how busy you are. And, if the latest statistics from the Henley Centre are anything to go by, you could be about to get much busier. Particularly if a double dip recession pushes us all into a scramble for fewer jobs and less money.
While many in government are heralding the recent spikes in volunteering requests as evidence that people want to get more involved, more recent evidence challenges this. The truth is no one is quite sure. This could be the start of a sea change, driven by rising unemployment rates and people keen to supplement their CVs. Or, it may be a blip in an otherwise overpowering trajectory towards time poverty and individualism. But it matters. It matters a lot. Time is the currency that fuels community, society and progress. We are, as a society and as individuals, how we spend our time.
The reason that successive governments have focussed on new politics, empowerment and Big Society respectively is that they, as politicians, are all too aware of how communities across Britain have become hollowed by the force of historically high employment and greater social pressures to be fitter, happier and more productive. 50 years ago Britain's communities were knitted together by people (often women) who lived in and built our communities. One of the most direct consequences of widespread economic liberation is that the time once invested in our communities has now been transferred into the wider financial economy. No one is suggesting that we should return to the starkly prejudicial times of the 1950s; but these developments have consequences.
Our drive to better ourselves and offer more to the next generation has meant we do more, putting ever greater pressures on our time. As the Henley data shows, in 2009 64% of people felt they did not have enough time to get things done and the recession has taken this figure even higher in 2010. Compounding this are a range of wider social trends such as increased time spent commuting, shopping and travelling abroad alongside other trends symptomatic of individualism such as a reduction in those playing team sports and an increase in individual sporting activity (e.g. gym and running) all of which directly take time out of the community.
I do not argue here that any of these things are bad – indeed often quite the contrary. However they are having profound consequences for society and present considerable challenges for those of us who want to see a bigger society. These challenges will not be addressed by a spike in volunteering, especially when considered against the government's announcements to cap benefits to ensure “work always pays”, and to “fix” the issue that working ‘is not a rational choice for many poor people'. Such arguments, though not without merit, simplify a complex social problem and add weight to the forces driving people out of their communities and out of the Big Society.
Time is the great leveller: whether young or old, rich or poor, you have one life of around 79.9 years. If we want stronger and more resilient communities we must spend time within and as communities. If we want to solve global problems like climate change we must build the structures that enable us to act and connect as a global society. If we want to tackle important issues, such as making plans to manage the financial crisis we now face, we must allocate time to such thinking. And, if we genuinely want to be happier, we must prioritise the time to connect with whatever it is that makes us happy; be it walking in nature, being with our family or faith.
If the government wants a Big Society it is going to have to ensure that our society can be restructured into one which provides powerful incentives for people like us to reallocate our time. We need to understand how we spend our time right now, and what it is that drives our current life choices. And we need to find and adopt the policies and practices that allow us to reinvest our time, our most precious resource, sensibly and responsibly. Then, and only then, will we see the Big Society flourish. Right you'd better get back to work!
Richard Wilson is the Director of Izwe and Founder of Involve. The original version of this post can be found at www.izwe.com.