Civil society and the generations

Rt Hon the Lord David Willetts

President, Resolution Foundation

The power of civil society rests on the establishment and active management of institutions that help to hold us together. It must evolve as circumstances change and, in the current context, should consider how more can be done to support inter-generational mixing at a time when demographic forces are pushing in the opposite direction.

Civil society is a powerful concept which can be used in many different ways. It can be interpreted very broadly as every form of association which stands between the individual and the state. It can be thought of as Gemeinschaft, community, which Tönnies distinguishes from Gesellschaft, the rules of an impersonal market society.[1] One strand of post-war thought exemplified by Almond and Verba identifies civic culture as one of the great strengths of modern liberal democracies and distinguishes between them and totalitarian states or dictatorships which are hostile to it.[2] I myself wrote in the early-1990s of “civic conservatism” to challenge a critique of free market economics that it was just about atomistic and selfish individuals and left no room for the institutions which make life worthwhile.[3]

But the breadth of the concept of civil society produces risks and difficulties too. It can become an amorphous shifting residual: what is left after more powerful forces such as family and state have done their bit. It is like that strand of theology, “the God of the gaps”,[4] in which the divine is thought to be expressed in phenomena which are not yet explained by science.

That opens the question of what kind of relationship civil society has to other forms of social organisation. There is an ideological debate about whether the state in particular should be seen as friend or enemy. The rise of the welfare state is a vivid example of this question. Gertrude Himmelfarb showed how much voluntary provision there was in Victorian England.[5] Did the creation of the modern welfare state in the first half of the twentieth century lead to the destruction of the friendly societies, or was it partly a response to their increasing weakness in the face of the rise of those twin features of a modern industrial society – unemployment and retirement?

“Close up, civil society proves to be a surprisingly controversial idea. But engaging with tricky issues is better than the alternative, which is to leave it just as a vague appeal to do good”

The relationship between civil society and the family is not straightforward either. Family ties reinforced by inheritance can produce low social mobility. Strong extended families can themselves act as a kind of mini-civil society serving their own kith and kin, but are those relationships benign or a kind of clan-based corruption? The rise of civil society in Great Britain was in part the product of small nuclear families and limited government leaving space in which civil society, at least of a certain sort, could thrive.

Close up, civil society proves to be a surprisingly controversial idea. But engaging with tricky issues is better than the alternative, which is to leave it just as a vague appeal to do good. Civil society then becomes a kind of social glue which we imagine we can pour over a diverse and divided society to try to hold it together. Asking for us to be good and co-operate with others is admirable, but on its own may not actually get us very far. And nowadays many moral claims are themselves contested unless they are so bland as to be almost meaningless.

The Commission on Civil Society will make most progress if it eschews any such moralistic appeals to be good. Instead it could start with much more limited and less favourable assumptions about human behaviour. The challenge is to try to construct policies promoting civil society with minimal prior assumptions. Instead of trying to stick us together with benign altruism this project should be thought of as more like dry-stone walling where the stones are held together not because they want to be, but because of the most basic natural forces and skilled institutional design. The starting assumptions about humans should be as limited as those which lie behind modern economics.

The intellectual resources of game theory and evolutionary biology then help to show a way forward from this apparently unpropitious starting point. One of the classic puzzles in modelling human behaviour is the Prisoner’s Dilemma – two criminals are arrested with strong incentives to betray each other even though they both do best if neither of them betrays. As neither can trust the other not to betray them, they end up both betraying and therefore are both worse off.

The dilemma forces us to think through the circumstances in which humans can co-operate. A key advance was made by Robert Axelrod when he showed that if we think of this dilemma not as a one-off but as an endlessly repeated exercise, then it becomes rational not to betray until you are betrayed.[6] This in turn helps us to understand what institutions do. They provide environments where repeated interactions promote co-operative behaviour. And we are talking here of real institutions which can do much more than the much more invertebrate concept of community.

This raises another set of other problems. Do such patterns of behaviour within institutions reward insiders versus outsiders? Indeed, one of the liveliest issues animating a lot of politics is who are the insiders, and who are the outsiders? A lot of feeling against immigrants comes from the fear that they are freeloaders, coming to benefit from a welfare state to which they have not contributed. It is one of the paradoxes of liberalism that it embraces diversity, but that it may also reduce support for a welfare state.

One of the gains from a range of different civil institutions is that they can create a network in which we can all find ways to be incorporated. For example, from one perspective the Catholic Church requires a shared set of beliefs which exclude many of us; yet it does very well at incorporating people of every social class, and Catholic schools score highly for ethnic mix.

One of the trickiest but also most productive applications of these insights is inter-generational issues. What if the insiders are a big generational cohort who shape society, intentionally or not, around their interest?

Think of a local residents’ association committed to supporting the local community. Its volunteers serve as councillors or as school governors, but they are all middle-aged or older owner-occupiers and oppose new housing in their area because they are unaware of or uninterested in the younger people desperate to get on the housing ladder. Or think of the extraordinary gains enjoyed by partners in stockbrokers and banks when they converted over the decade after the Big Bang from trust-based partnerships to limited companies. The value of generations of gains in building up an enterprise were obtained by one lucky cohort. Alternatively, it can be private equity massively increasing the gearing of a company and extracting one-off gains for holders of a small equity base while the narrowness of its capital base leaves it vulnerable to a big external shock. These are all examples of institutions captured by a narrow interest and doing wider damage.

How can we possibly value the long term in circumstances like these? And why should it matter? The life cycle is key here. It is at the centre of the social contract holding us together. We are born dependent and have a longer period of dependence on our parents than any other creature. We are then – usually – productive in our prime. In old age we are once again dependent. We need a mechanism to enable us to consume more than we produce when young and old, but then to give up some of our extra production when we are in middle age. One can think of this as smoothing over the life cycle: ending up, in the simplest case, consuming all that we produce over our lifetime but redistributing it over the life cycle instead of just when we are in our prime.

We do this by living in human society where we can exchange with others who are at different stages of the life cycle. Paul Samuelson put it very well: “giving goods to an older person is figuratively giving goods to yourself when old”.[7] It is these exchanges between generations which are at the heart of society, and also the modern welfare state. It is why services from education (for the young) and health care (for the old) matter so much to us.

At any one moment they may look like transactions with someone else, but they are also exchanges with ourselves at different stages of the life cycle. It is easy to think of these people of different ages as just different – imprinted with different experiences during their formative years and familiar with different technologies. But there is another way of thinking of them: just like us but of a different age. And the more we can connect with them the more we may continue to support these exchanges which keep society together. It is profoundly depressing to read the opinion polling which suggests young people do not believe they will ever receive a state pension[8] – it suggests a deep pessimism about maintaining these contracts.

There is evidence that we live in an increasingly age-segregated society, less likely than was once the case to work or socialise with people of different ages.[9] But at the same time the family is changing in the opposite way. We have fewer siblings and cousins. As people live longer so we are more likely to have surviving grandparents. So one picture of our country is of broad age cohorts segregated from each other, with tall thin bamboo families increasingly important as the place where inter-generational exchanges occur.

That suggests an important role for the Commission on Civil Society: namely to consider ways in which inter-generational forms of civil association can be promoted.

“If we are to strengthen the sense of community and civil society, and thereby strengthen the social contract, it is crucial to include current contributors so that they understand that they are essentially giving money to themselves at a different age”

There are some interesting straws in the wind. For example the TV programmes in which young kids mix with elderly residents of care homes have really struck a chord.[10] Are there ways in which, as we emerge from Covid, further links of this sort might be promoted? Then there is an excellent charity which tries to link up older spare room-owning people with youngsters desperate for a place to live.[11] But there are considerable regulatory barriers to such arrangements. And what about grandparents, who can play a crucial role in helping nurture grandchildren but who have such limited rights in this regard? Is this something which should change?

These are examples of integrating the youngest and the oldest – two groups who are ‘dependent’ in society. But it would be particularly valuable if different ‘dependent groups’ integrate with ‘independent’ or ‘productive’ groups, i.e. working-age people. (Excuse the crude association of paid work and independence, but there is a genuine point here.)

If we are to strengthen the sense of community and civil society, and thereby strengthen the social contract, it is crucial to include current contributors so that they understand that they are essentially giving money to themselves at a different age. So we should look also at links between harassed workers and other age groups. Networks in which they are helped to alleviate the pressures they are under – such as help with childcare – in return for their contributing in future, would be very valuable indeed.

The concept of “civic conservatism” that I set out in the 1990s was met by my party colleagues with, if not great fervour, then at least a pragmatic acknowledgement that it was something we on the political right should understand and promote. It influenced David Cameron and served in some ways as a precursor to the concept of the ‘Big Society’ which he developed. That project suffered as it became associated with the politics of austerity – asking voluntary groups to step in to plug gaps created by cuts in public spending. But the concept is one that all of us, regardless of political party, must continue to engage with.

That is particularly true as the country faces up to both the demographic challenge associated with the big baby boomer generation growing old and the need for rebuilding and renewing associated with recovery from the pandemic. The signals from today’s Government suggest there is appetite for such thinking. The rallying around the ‘build back better’ banner provides the opportunity for the Government and the country more generally to take stock and determine how we might all – the state, business and civil society – come together to determine and deliver the sort of country we want to live in. That is not one in which government decides everything. Instead it leaves space for and actively promotes a flourishing civil society as well as a market economy.

[1] F Tönnies, Community and Civil Society, ed. J Harris, trans. M Hollis, Cambridge University Press, 2001

[2] G Almond & S Verba, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, Sage, 1963

[3] D Willetts, Civic Conservatism, The Social Market Foundation, 1994

[4] See for example, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Teleological Argument’s for God’s Existence”, 2005

[5] G Himmelfarb, Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, Vintage,1992

[6] R Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, Penguin,1990

[7] P Samuelson, ‘An Exact Consumption-Loan Model of Interest with or without the Social Contrivance of Money’, Journal of Political Economy, 66, 1958, pp467–82

[8] H Shrimpton, G Skinner & S Hall, The millennial bug: public attitudes on the living standards of different generations, Resolution Foundation, 2017

[9] It is hard to be certain about this though, and it would be a useful exercise for the Commission on Civil Society to assess the evidence. See: D Willetts, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back, 2019. See also: C McCurdy, Ageing fast and slow: When place and demography collide, Resolution Foundation, 2019

[10] See: Channel 4’s ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’

[11] Homeshare International