Community Spirit on the wane?

For some reason, possibly temporary insanity, I ended up buying the Sunday Telegraph today (well actually the choice was Telegraph or News of the World…). As I suspected there are numerous examples of intemperate and illogical thought processes, all with the potential of providing this blog with millions of posts.

One of the things which has caught my eye early on is a page titled “The rise of can’t-be-bothered Britain” (available online). Basically, this is a piece on how since the fifties, community groups (Women’s Institute and the like) are losing out on membership. The thrust of the article seems to be trying to imply this is actually because people can not be bothered rather than anything else. Sadly, the article is riddled with poor historical analysis and some blinding leaps of illogic. Early on it sets the scene:

Seven out of 10 people questioned had no ties to groups or associations in their neighbourhoods. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the figure rose to eight out of 10. Lack of time, or a dearth of groups relevant to their needs, were given as the main reasons.

The findings reflect the decline of bodies such as churches, the Women’s Institute and the Scouts, and appear to show the rise of a generation that cannot be bothered.

The data seems reasonable enough, so I am not going to debate that. I do have to question the assumption that this means people “cannot be bothered” though. From what I have read in the article there is little to actually support that conclusion – other than an innate journalistic bias. Further on, it continues with this mixed bag:

Membership of the Scout Association has fallen by a third since the early 1990s, to stand at 450,000 last year, while a shortage of Girl Guides leaders has been blamed on the growing number of women who work.

Women’s Institute membership, now 215,000, has halved since the 1970s, and the Labour and Tory parties have fewer than 500,000 members between them, a tenth of the level in the Fifties. According to Christian Research, less than 7 per cent of the population now attend church regularly.

Now, the less than 7% is good 🙂 , but I admit the drop off in political activity may be a “bad thingâ„¢.” There is little doubt in my mind that the increasing number of women in work is affecting the Guides when it comes to trying to get leaders but “blame” seems a strange term. Using a term like blame (remember, a journalist wrote this – they are experts in choosing the correct word for their meaning), seems to be saying women should feel guilty for going to work and earning money, rather than giving up their time for free. I find that odd, and I doubt the Guide Association would have meant it in that manner. It gets better though:

Yet research into work patterns suggests that “lack of time” may be a convenient excuse, rather than a genuine reason not to get involved. The average working week lengthened from 35 hours in the Seventies to 39 hours in 1998, but has since shortened to about 37½ hours, Office for National Statistics figures show.

Welcome to the land of bad statistics. Now, I actually do normally work less than 37.5 hours so maybe I skew the data a little, but I suspect if you average it out over the year (to include the periods where I work 12 – 16 hours a day for a fortnight straight), it comes to 37.5hrs. Despite this, pretty much no one else I know (I am aware this is not really valid data, I am trying to make a point) works less than 37.5 hours. Most work more – either voluntary or to gain overtime pay. I suspect the ONS figures are somewhat skewed and don’t count things like overtime, but this is an argument for another day. I am fairly sure the ONS figures only talk about time which is “worked and paid for” – so the hour for lunch does not count.

The interesting point about it is, this is an attempt by the journalist to imply that as people only work an average of 2.5 hours a week more, they still should have loads of spare time.

In the paper edition, the article is accompanied by a picture of loads of women “mucking in” to clean a street for a Coronation street party (1953 IIRC). The picture shows over a dozen women (probably twice as many) scrubbing the stones and decorating. What wonderful times, when communities were real communities eh?

Sadly, if you check ONS data I very much doubt that the average woman in that community was working 35 hours per week. In the days when WI, Guides etc were at their strongest, few if any women worked in jobs outside the home. Now I am not saying housework is not hard graft (it is) but the women of yesteryear had 37.5 hours a week more to do house work and be involved in the community. Today, nearly every family I know has both partners working (more than 37.5 hours but…). This was not the case in the 1970s and certainly was not the case in the 1950s. If we look at a family with no kids: In the fifties, the husband would have worked about 50 hours a week, leaving (assuming 8hours sleep) 174 hours for the family to get involved in things. Travel to and from work was almost zero as most people lived within a few minutes walk of the work place.

Today, that family will include two people working 37.5 hours a week (remember, 5 hours a week will be unpaid lunchbreaks, so they are actually “in work” for 42.5 hours a week – often people will be in work longer as morning and afternoon breaks are not counted). Now again assuming 8 hours a person a day sleep, this means there is actually only 139 hours a week free. As the average commute today is 45 minutes each way, this takes another 15 hours a week off people. Before we look at any lifestyle changes or issues, a couple today has about 124 hours a week “free time.” This is 50 hours a week less than the halcyon days of yore, or more than a full working week. This doesn’t include things like collecting children from childminders, going to the gym (less manual work means more time spent in the gym!) and so on.

Strikes me as people do have less spare time than they used to. I think this is highlighted by the further commentary:

Working-class people and those living in the north of England were most likely to admit no involvement in any community group. In London and the south, rates were lifted by the popularity of residents’ associations and book groups.

Yeah, people who work for a living (and depend on things like overtime) have less spare time than the idle rich in London. Who would have thought it? (And I am also aware that in London some people work zillions of hours a week, it was a joke).

Looking at the picture in the paper, I cant help but feel the lack of “community” is much more complicated than saying people today can’t be bothered (even in the over 60’s membership is minimal, and they will have grown up with this sort of thing, and certainly have the spare time…). In the 50s people lived in council housing, the state cared for them and, as a result, they cared for the state. Today there is more and more pressure for the state to cut people free (especially from the Telegraph), yet there is amazement that people don’t still care about the state in the same manner.

Now that is what I find strange.