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The reluctance of the young to give to charity tells the story of a society moving anti-clockwise

2012 September 28

Twice a week I cycle through my local park. Near the middle is an old bandstand. Every time I come to it the old philosophical conundrum of freewill and determinism pops into my over-stimulated mind. Will I negotiate the bandstand by going clockwise or anti-clockwise? My cogitation and calculation is so rapid in my determination to demonstrate that my will is indeed free that I have been known to wobble dangerously with indecision, though I have not, to date, actually fallen off.

This week there was an added fact to my speed philosophy because I was factoring in a new element.  This time it was more sociological than theological. What if the determinant factor was cultural?

The news which prompted this musing was the report from the Charities Aid Foundation that the over-60s are now more than twice as likely to give to charity as the under 30s.  Charities are worrying about the growth of a “donation deficit” as the oldies die off. Half of all charity incomes now comes from the over 60s. The study offered an interesting potted history of change. It covered four distinct groups: the Inter-War Generation (born between 1925 and 1945); the Baby Boomers (1945-1966); Generation X (1965-1981) and Generation Y (1982-1999).

Those born between the wars grew up in a world in which religion and wartime social solidarity were dominant cohesive forces. Their children, born into ever-rising affluence, developed a more individualist vision in which idealism and altruism went hand-in-hand with a more self-focused vision of life. But both religion and socialism, which offered easily understood ways of talking about our interdependence and responsibilities, have withered.

Previous surveys from the Charities Aid Foundation have shown that religious donors give twice as much as those without a faith. And wealthy people give a smaller percentage of their income to charity than door the less well-off.  As any Christian Aid collector will confirm you often raise more money from poorer areas than affluent ones.

The cultural perspectives and political experiences which shaped Generation X were those of change. The global energy crisis and recession of 1979 was followed by the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. After the fall of the Berlin Wall came economic boom. Greed was good. The self-interest embodied in the market was announced as the only basis for growth, freedom and civilisation. In the Me Generation of the Eighties it became thinkable that there was “no such thing as society”.

Generation Y are less maniacal but as the first children to grow up taking modern technology for granted they are tech savvy and gadget mad. Their insatiable thirst for the next generation of smart phone, netbook and virtual reality feeds cycles of material dissatisfaction which consumerism seems constantly to ratchet up. Though they seem confident, achievement-oriented and ambitious they feel a sense of entitlement which has been thwarted by a dearth of good jobs, by tuition fees and the ever-rising cost of getting onto the housing ladder. Not to mention the high cost of binge drinking.

Social togetherness and a sense of the common good are in decline. Individualism, materialism and a rights culture are ascendant.  The present Government had a phase of loudly championing philanthropy nut ministers have stopped talking about it now, after finding they were spitting in the wind.

Perhaps I am being a grumpy old man here. Maybe young folk will reconnect with the notion of altruism and social solidarity if charities can only find a way of tapping them through Twitter and other social media. Perhaps they need to turn their bikes and start cycling widdershins.

The Church Times

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