How times change. Back in the 1980s, a certain British Prime Minister from the right-of-centre Conservative Party tried to convince us there was no such thing as society, only individuals. Now, the current Prime Minister, from that same Conservative Party, is extolling the virtues of the Big Society, in which everyone volunteers to spend their Sunday afternoons helping old ladies across the road or engaged in some other worthwhile voluntary activity. A nice idea. But as every good statistician knows, before accepting the validity of an idea, you have to check the assumptions that go with it.
A key assumption of the Big Society model of civic responsibility is that there are enough people out there ready to sign up to voluntary organisations. A recent report on voluntary activity using submissions from the Citizenship Survey in the UK revealed that 10% of unpaid voluntary work is carried out by a very active 1% of the population whilst 8% are responsible for half the total voluntary hours, two-fifths of charitable giving and a quarter of participation in civic organisations.
The report, by Professor John Mohan of the Third Sector Research Centre, goes on to show that volunteers tend to be quite restricted in age and social background. For example, a volunteer is likely to be middle-aged and is 2½ times more likely to come from the 10% of most prosperous localities than the 10% least well off. It should be pointed out that we don’t know if there is a significant effect of prosperity on the probability of volunteering without first knowing how much volunteering we would expect from these localities without the effect of prosperity being taken into account (the ‘null expectation’ in statistical terms).
Any significant increase in the amount of voluntary work carried out is going to demand the involvement of other sections of the population. Given that these sections are usually involved in paid work or have constraints on their time, it might be a little optimistic to assume they are ready to volunteer to the required extent. A society where everybody helps everyone else is a very nice concept but it may very well falter on its assumptions.
As the evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson famously said in response to a question about Communism; “Great idea: wrong species”.