Social Participation in Canada

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Research Briefs

Social Participation in Canada Continues to Decrease

A recent study confirmed earlier research on the steady decrease in level of participation in civic and public life in Canada from 1992 to 2005. Prof. Stéphanie Gaudet, a sociologist at the University of Ottawa, investigated the phenomenon from an innovative perspective – looking at time given to others through volunteering or mutual aid – with an eye for the full life course of Canadians.

Overall, less than 20% of the Canadian population engaged in volunteering or mutual aid from 1992 to 2005. Canadians in the pre-retirement stage of their life course, aged from 50 to 64 years, gave the most time to volunteer activities. In contrast, the youngest, aged 15 to 24 years, and the oldest, aged 65 to 74 years, demonstrated a marked drop in volunteer engagement. The study suggests that the disengagement can be due to a decrease in institutional influence over these phases of the life course and a potential loss of trust in institutions by individuals, especially for the 15 to 24 year olds.

In addition, Canadians aged 25-49, who are more likely to have pre-school and school-aged children, are less engaged in social participation in comparison to persons in the 50-64 age group. This lower engagement at ages 25-49 could influence subsequent engagement over the life course, and it could be providing a poor example to children with regard to social participation. The limited engagement at the childrearing stage could also undermine children’s interests that are not sufficiently supported by parental involvement in relevant organizations..

These findings offer an opportunity for policy makers to develop more fine-tuned policy in social organizations in order to frame social participation. Time considerations over the course of life are both professional and private. Gaudet counsels that Canadians’ private spheres deal not only with domestic and family issues, but also with social participation. Policies encouraging more time flexibility by acknowledging domestic, family and social participation, for example, might stimulate greater social participation.

As Gaudet notes, “policies that favour time flexibility over the life course cannot by themselves stop the decline in social participation, seemingly transmitted by intergenerational socialization. Volunteer organizations (community organizations, for example) must also weigh in and create welcoming structures for citizens who wish to engage.” In the end, governments and organizations gain by integrating volunteers at the collective level. Citizens acquire increased democratic competencies, integrate into and obtain support from the community, and finally, enhance their political socialization. As this investigation reveals, social participation research through a life course perspective is an excellent starting point to help reach these goals.

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