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Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing

Civil society and ageing populations

What is the role of community organisations and volunteers?

From MICRA and Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research (WISERD)

Wednesday 7 October 2015


Civil society has become big news over the past few years. Politicians and media commentators from across the political spectrum have invoked it as a solution to a range of social problems. However in spite of the popularity of the idea, or perhaps because of it, civil society lacks an agreed upon definition. It can appear to mean many things to many people. This makes it difficult to know whether it has a positive effect for older people and the wider community. On the one hand there is lots of evidence to suggest that volunteering in later life can have hugely positive effects for individuals and their communities. However there are concerns that Governments are seeking to encourage volunteering or other unpaid work such as grandparenting as a way to fill in the gap left by the withdrawal of state funding for local services. Moreover there are those who feel that promotion of volunteering in later life as a morally and socially worthy activity might doubly disadvantage those older people who, for health or other reasons, are not able to participate and risk stigmatisation and/or further social exclusion. Evidence suggests that older volunteers are likely to be ‘younger’, healthier, better educated, religious, and have higher social status. However, research on civic participation in later life tends not to take account of the changes in civil society itself. It focuses instead on the relationship between individual participation and indicators of successful ageing. Yet civil society organisations (CSOs) are operating in in the context of continued economic and political crises that are having profound and harmful effects. Such issues throw up challenges for researchers interested in civic participation in later life. Moreover, levels of social cohesion and intergenerational solidarity may be profoundly affected by the economic and political consequences of population ageing. This may feed in to different attitudes and experiences of crime and local forms of social capital.

It is important to examine these different issues critically because, as some writers suggest, the promotion of civic engagement and volunteering among older people should not be assumed to be benign; rather the rhetoric in this area implicitly lets governments off the hook in providing for health and social needs. This seminar considered the current state of thinking about forms of civil society and social participation in later life and presented earlier findings from comparative research in order to set out potential avenues for further research and collaboration.