Australia’s social capital recovery

Back in May, when the ABS released its working time statistics, left-familist John Buchanan went on the offensive:

“It is not just family life, but community life that is being compromised,” said the director of the Workplace Research Centre at Sydney University, John Buchanan. “It just rips the heart out of the football team.”

Yesterday, the ABS released its 2006 voluntary work statistics, showing yet again that left-familist analysis owes more to its ideological assumptions than to empirical social science. Despite two rounds of IR reform since they started these surveys in 1995, the volunteering rate continues to increase, though at a lower overall rate.

The figures were 1995 – 23.6%, 2000- 31.8%, 2002 – 34.4%, 2006 – 35.4%. Unfortunately there is no specific information on football teams (though only work for the team, rather than playing, would be counted) but young men aged 18-24 showed above average increases in volunteering between the two surveys. Indeed, the increase between the last two surveys was driven by the 18-44 year olds, with older age groups showing minor increases or decline.

Also inconsistent with the time poverty argument, those in professional and managerial jobs and higher income groups (two socioeconomic characteristics linked with long work hours) had above average volunteering rates.

The survey confirms that social capital breeds further social capital. People whose parents had been volunteers were nearly twice as likely to volunteer as those whose parents were not volunteers (43%/23%). People who had participated as a child in team sport, a youth group, a religious organisation, or had been a volunteer worker were more than twice as likely to be adult volunteers as those who had not done any of these things. Similarly, the most common explanations given for how the volunteer became involved were social – someone asked (35%) and knew someone involved (29%).

This presumably helps explains why migrants have lower rates of volunteering – 36.2% of the Australian-born volunteer compared to 25.9% of those born in non-English-speaking countries (with other English-speaking countries closer to the Australian-born on 34%). Australian-born people are more likely to have a family history of involvement or to know somebody who is involved in a voluntary group.

When social capital came into vogue in the 1990s there was a lot of pessimism surrounding it. Eva Cox’s 1995 Boyer Lectures argued that economic and political trends were against it (Eva, who has joined just about every leftist bandwagon for half a century, is one the Benchmarks signatories along with Buchanan). Largely excellent social scientists like Robert Putnam made a convincing case that social capital was declining in the United States, though from a high base.

In Australia, some older community organisations are undoubtedly in decline. But after four ABS surveys all pointing to an increase in volunteering we can be reasonably confident that in Australia social capital is again on the rise.

9 thoughts on “Australia’s social capital recovery

  1. A quick look over the stats indicates that a huge chunk of time is people selling raffle tickets for sporting clubs. Yet this is counted somehow as just as reportable as volunteering for the SES. There is no measure of quality of involvement at all, making the assertion that social capital is on the rise a specious one.


  2. Fundraising is the single most common volunteering involvement, but that’s because virtually every voluntary group has to raise funds while most of the other forms of involvement refer to the specific activities of voluntary groups, which obviously vary a lot. It also requires few specific skills, except perhaps knowing or finding people to give money.

    It’s true that volunteering is a proxy for social capital (it’s possible to volunteer with little or no contact with others), but as my analysis of the backgrounds of volunteers suggests it largely comes from people with community connections and in the majority of cases will involve active interaction with others.

    Combining the volunteering data with other social capital proxies, such as surveys of trust and workforce participation rates, we are left with no real evidence pointing to a decline in social capital and several items pointing to the opposite conclusion.


  3. If you are going to rely on increases in workforce participation rates and fundraising as a proxy for measurement of social capital, you’re going to have to differentiate between the bonding and bridging styles of social capital. I have no doubt the bonding style of social capital is increasing, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing if it’s happening at the expense of bridging style social capital. i.e. what you’re measuring and applauding is a fragmentation of society as working hours increasingly make it difficult to make social connections not associated with work.


  4. The Productivity Commission, in its reports on Social Capital and the Job Network, and its more recent paper on Men Not At Work, made the point that employment is a key source of social connectedness for many people – particularly men.

    David raised the issue of longer working hours reducing social connections not made at work. Presumably that is correct – beyond a base number of hours at work, marginal hours at work do not increase the range of contacts made there, and can crowd out other activities.

    Even so, it should be recognised that, to the extent that economic policies that have been pursued in recent years, including microeconomic reform and IR changes such as the curtailing of unfair dismissal laws, have generated the higher employment levels we are seeing today, they will also have increased social capital. The Left tends to be silent on these points.


  5. We can’t really tell from this data which kind of social capital it is. Work can create both types. But there is no evidence that work is a major problem here. As I noted in the original post, groups known to work long hours also have higher than average volunteering rates. Full and part time workers have almost the same median hours of voluntary work per week (though part-time women are champion volunteers in the proportions of them involved – 47%).

    The ‘long hours’ problem is exaggerated in this regard, because people working 50 hours a week can still have all or most evenings and all or most weekends free. Further, the HILDA survey shows that for most it is a passing phase.


  6. Just to make the point clearer, for previously unemployed people, the social connections and inculcation of norms gained through getting a job are a form of ‘bridging’ social capital, insofar as the values and norms of people in employment are often quite different from those of people in long-term unemployment, particularly those who have never held down a job.


  7. Andrew Norton wrote:
    The ‘long hours’ problem is exaggerated in this regard, because people working 50 hours a week can still have all or most evenings and all or most weekends free.
    That doesn’t take dead commuter time into account.
    I have no problem with the idea that moving from unemployment to employment increases those individuals bridging social capital, I’m questioning the line of logic that Andrew is using to dismiss the concerns of Buchanan and Cox with the simplistic modelling of any increasing social capital as negating their views. It doesn’t hold if the increasing social capital is bonding rather than bridging. The increased social capital of newly employed people would be a rather small amount overall I would think.


  8. Andrew, fundraising may be important at some social clubs but at the cricket and football clubs I am associated with it is coaches that is all important and getting coaches in particular cricket coaches ( where it must be done in daylight) is very very hard these days.

    Fundraising is relatively easy as you simply get the parents to assist. This happens in both clubs and they are the biggest in the area in both codes.
    We need people to do actual work and it is getting much harder these days and I am finding even the volunteers can’t make meetings sometimes.


  9. I would like to add to this discussion a caution when it comes to ‘differentiating’ between bonding and bridging social capital, as David suggests. The different forms of social capital are there to compliment each other. In my view, if we can reproduce the social capital outcomes produced in bonded networks in terms of inter-group relations (bridging) then the social benefits we are talking about here (better employment and volunteering in significant ways) will follow.
    I think a problem with discussion on social capital to this point in the evolution of the theory is that people try to break it up and advocate for this form or that form, or to locate it within the individual or the group. If we can keep in mind that social capital outcomes are produced from ethical social processes (well intended relationships between individuals and groups) then we have a solid theory upon which to discuss the problems discussed on this site.
    So instead of focusing on the different aspects of social capital, I suggest that we start focusing on the parts that are similar and see where that leads us.


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