Don’t fall for the idea we’re getting ever more selfish
I’M sure that, going back 100 years ago to 1923, people were moaning that society was getting more selfish with every passing year. And I’d wager good money that the same complaint was being made in 1823, 1723 and 1623 – and way back further, too. It’s a natural human trait to look back to the past with rose-tinted spectacles – and to compare the present unfavourably with it.
But that makes it all the more important that, every so often, we take stock and put some perspective into our lives. Because while there is a lot wrong with society today – and much that is worse than before – there is also a lot that is right and indeed, better than ever.
In that vein, we shouldn’t fall for the idea that we are getting ever more selfish. It’s an easy story to tell, but it’s not one that’s backed up by the facts.
Take yesterday’s Big Help Out. For sure, it was a one-off – a nationally coordinated day when all of us were asked if we could give some time to volunteer. But it was pushing at an open door.
BEFORE the Coronation, a survey found that some 6.5 million of us said we planned to take part in the Big Help Out, yesterday’s day of volunteering organised by the Together Coalition. That’s an impressive enough figure on its own. But what makes it even more heartening is that the poll (conducted last month) showed that younger people were more likely than any other group to participate. Some 24 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds and 19 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds said they would volunteer yesterday. So much for the idea that we are getting ever more selfish.
Thousands of charities and organisations signed up to take part in the Big Help Out – groups such as the Scouts, NSPCC, British Red Cross, RNLI, RSPCA, St John Ambulance, Samaritans, the British Heart Foundation, Citizens Advice, Girlguiding, Stroke Association and Cats Protection – along with lots of smaller, local organisations.
Co-ordinated by an app, volunteers chose from a variety of categories. It was, as you can see in the news pages, a huge success.
But the point of it is not to have one day tacked on to the Coronation when volunteering is highlighted. It’s to show how rewarding and vital volunteering is, and to embed it further in people’s consciousness. As Bear Grylls, the Chief Scout, put it, volunteering is “a huge part of what makes this country great”. The Big Help Out aimed at inspiring a new generation.
It’s vital because many organisations depend almost entirely on volunteers. At times – such as during the pandemic – the need is even greater than usual. Then, some 12 million people volunteered in different ways during the worst ravages of Covid, performing genuinely vital tasks. And in 2012 the Olympics depended on volunteers, who became a big part of its success.
But for all the willingness of so many of us to volunteer, there is always more that can be done – which is why yesterday was so important in showcasing the idea.
Here is a suggestion: let’s make the Big Help Out an annual event. The need for volunteering is never going to disappear – indeed, as we age as a society, it’s only likely to grow. Surely it makes sense to have one day a year set aside to remind ourselves of how important volunteering is – so how about tying it to one of the May Bank Holidays to remind us of its origins in the Coronation?
There is a precedent in the traditions of charity in faith groups. My own Jewish community has had Mitzvah Day since 2005, named after the Hebrew word for a good deed. It takes place every November with some 40,000 people taking part “to give our time, not money, to make a difference to the community around us” as the charity behind it puts it.
PERHAPS it’s now time to stop laughing at David Cameron’s idea of the “Big Society” and to give him some credit for it. When he started using the term in government in 2010 there was widespread scorn – Cameron never referred to it again after 2013. But the notion that communities should have more powers, and we should be encouraged to take a more active role in our community, was clearly right.
Getting government to do more than simply exhort us to do more – actively support and promote co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises, for example – was a step too far.
The Big Help Out might be more limited in ambition than the Big Society, but it’s no less important for that. Let’s each of us celebrate the Coronation by doing our bit – and make it an annual tradition.
‘Volunteering is a huge part of what makes this country great’