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The Doers: Tales of a Vanishing Tribe

November 20, 2009 - Ray Pennings

“If you want to get a job done, ask a busy person!”

Why does it seem that the best person for a job is usually too busy to do it? Whether it’s volunteer boards, side-projects or community councils, the doers are always in hot demand. There is always a severe lack of highly competent folks who are willing to do what it takes to deliver, especially when those folks are doing it for free. Most of us have experienced the truth of this problem one way or the other.  But as the main essay in this edition of Cardus Policy in Public  points out, there are implications for a society when it over-relies on a diminishing base of generous doers.

Twenty-nine percent of  Canadians,  who form a group which researchers have labeled the “civic core,” contribute over three quarters of the giving and volunteering.   What distinguishes this group from the rest of society is not only its higher level of activity, but an “otherness syndrome” which comes from a worldview that stresses responsibility, connectedness and cultural renewal.

Making the link between belief and behaviour is a tricky business.  The notion that “ideas have legs” is an easy truism. But it’s more challenging to go beyond this “safe” general observation and into the implications:  people who are older, more religious, and better educated are carrying a disproportionate share of the civic load in Canada. What happens when demographic trends mean that those who are presently carrying a disproportionate share are no longer able and are not being replaced?  What are the implications of a society that is—at least according to popular perception—becoming less religious?  If we’re living off of the social and cultural capital cultivated in a previous generation, how will we cope with the civic deficit that will face the next generation?

The policy paper, from which the main feature of this issue is drawn, makes nineteen recommendations with steps that can be initiated in all spheres of society in order to bring attention to this problem. Originally released in Ottawa in October, the paper recommends especially that the federal government increase the charitable tax credit, which would provide both a recognition and conversation on this important topic and a practical incentives for Canadians to become more civically engaged.  This initiative would hardly solve the problem, but it could provide a basis to alert society more widely to this brewing crisis and provide an immediate and tangible medium by which to revitalize the full range of civic players.

In democracies, renewal happens in small, slow ways. It often starts with a conversation. In this vein we are pleased to publish alongside our policy excerpt a response from David Stewart-Patterson of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Stewart-Patterson asks his own questions about this diminishing civic core but remains consistent in his serious concern over the overall demographic trend. It is a seriousness which is also captured in a longer and protracted way in Brian Lee Crowley’s new book, Fearful Symmetry.

Fearful Symmetry forcefully highlights that these new demographic trends are having a significant impact on the makeup of the country and the value systems which shape our politics.  Peter Menzies’ review of this book highlights how values of work and family—sometimes seen to be controversial—can be framed in sociological and statistical manners to make the case that the status quo is unsustainable. It is an important book published at a critical time in the debate. It is contentious, absolutely—but it asks the right questions at the right time in this ongoing debate about where we are and where we need to go.

Cardus’ mission is the “renewal of North America’s social architecture,” and so for us, it is directly on task to focus attention on the challenges we face in rethinking the social institutions that are critical to our future. In the pursuit of that mission, Cardus organized an early November urbanism conference in partnership with the Canadian Urban Institute and World Vision. We also published a collection of essays titled Think Different: Urban Religious Communities—Problem Solvers or Trouble Makers? A list of the contributors and two selections from the book are included in this issue of Cardus Policy in Public.

The key to any social innovation is knowing what to keep from our past and what  new things need to be considered as culture changes. We are committed to  exploring this dynamic landscape as our contribution to the common good.

Posted in Culture.

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This Article Belongs To ...

  1. November 2009: Exploring the Civic Core
    CPIP - Exploring the Civic Core

    An exploration of Canada's civic core, the portion of the population responsible for most of our giving, volunteering and civic participation.

    Download the PDF.