Population Change and Lifecourse

Research Brief #7 - July 2012

Social Participation in Canada Viewed through a Life Course Approach


The level of participation in civic and public life in Canada fell significantly from 1992 to 2005. This prompted author Stéphanie Gaudet to ask: how has social participation evolved from 1992 to 2005? And, who are the individuals who participated socially in 2005? Previous studies and policy development on social participation have largely neglected the collective dimension of communities and life course approaches. At the heart of Gaudet’s research, therefore, is a need to further understanding of changes in the life courses of Canadians. In turn, this understanding can help policy makers develop finely tuned policies to foster greater individual engagement within communities.

In this study, social participation by the individual is operationalized as the gift of time to an organization or other individuals. In essence, this captures formal (volunteer) and informal (mutual aid) engagement with the community. The General Social Survey on Time Use for the years 1992, 1998, and 2005 provides data on social participation changes in the lives of Canadians.

Key Findings

Social participation over the life course


The life course paradigm is an approach that analyses continuity and change within individual itineraries (Sapin et al., 2007). Each itinerary is embedded within multiple social relations – including those linked with age, generations and sex – and the public policies that frame it. In contrast to static categories – such as student, re-tiree or unemployed – a life course approach tends to shun silo policies preferring instead to integrate the wide range of programs that impact individuals at each phase of the life course.

This research addresses a persistent blind spot encountered in social policy and longitudinal studies: a lack of understanding into the dynamic social ties individuals maintain with the community. The innovative indicator deployed in this article maintains a focus on the individual while capturing the dynamic relationship between the individual and the community. The indicator is social participation (volunteering in organizations or mutual aid to other individuals) as time given to others in the community, with sensitivity to institutionalization (see definitions in Box 1).

Box 1. Definitions


The article explored two main questions:

The guiding hypothesis was that there is a redefinition of the relationship between the individual and the collective level. To study this redefinition, the author investigated Canadians’ engagement in social participation through a life course approach.


Data were obtained from Statistic Canada’s General Social Survey (GSS) on Time use (cycles 7, 12, and 19). The article focused mainly on cycles 7 and 19 and cycle 12 confirmed the trend for the 13-year pe-riod. The two binary variables created for analysis reflected absence of social participation or at least some social participation activity in a given day. In spite of not having longitudinal data, tests revealed that age groups could approximate cohorts in the respective study years (1992, 1998, and 2005).

The cohorts were further characterized by similar time use (as opposed to age group characteristics). For example, 15 to 24 year olds organizing time around studies and leisure, 25 to 49 year olds organizing time around paid full-time employment, 50 to 64 year olds with a diversification of time devoted to paid employment (i.e., part-time, holidays, retirement), and 65 to 74 year olds organizing time around retirement (discussion in Marucchi-Foino, 2007). Individuals over 75 years of age were excluded because of statistical representation. The cohorts also doubled as sequential phases in life courses (see sequential institutionalization in Box 1), closely associated with a time considerations (in this case Canadians’ age).


Social participation over the life course

The following findings related to social participation over the life course of Canadians.

The significant drop in social participation for Canadians from 1992 to 2005, is captured in these three trends:

The only constant in Canadians’ social participation is the stable continuity of women engaging in mutual aid. 

Figure 1. Participation Rate, by Age, for 1992, 1998, and 2005Figure 1 illustrates how, as Canadians aged, they tended to increase time given to social participation. In spite of increased engagement over life courses, social participation declined from 1992 to 2005 for each age group. The decrease is particularly stark for the youngest (15-24 years), with a 50% drop, and the oldest (65-74 years). However, socio-political and socio-economic contexts can help explain the higher participation of 15 to 24 year olds in 1992 at the height of an economic downturn. Youth tended to view volunteering as an opportunity to gain experience. The 50% drop therefore, is relative.

Canadians in the pre-retirement stage of their life course (50 to 64 years) demonstrated the largest increase in time involvement in volunteer activities, regardless of sex and cohort (1992, 1998, and 2005). Comparing cohorts across years, there was a marked drop in formal social participation especially among those at the beginning (15-24 years) and at the end (65-74 years) of their life courses.

In contrast to large fluctuations in formal social participation in volunteer activities, Canadian involved in informal mutual aid activities maintained steadier time commitments throughout their life courses.

Characteristics of Canadians who participate socially

Following are select characteristics of Canadians who engaged in social participation:


Gaudet concluded that the drop in formal and informal social participation by Canadians confirmed the hypothesis of a redefinition of relations between individuals and the collective level. Furthermore, social participation is intricately linked with life courses. This study confirmed previous research into the decline in social participation. Viewed through the lens of giving and of life courses, Canadians seem less likely to create social networks outside of their close proximity networks.

Policy implications


About the study

“La participation sociale des Canadiens : une analyse selon l’approche des parcours de vie” was published in Canadian Public Policy—Analyse de Politiques, Vol XXXVII, Supplement/Numéro spécial 2011S33-S56. The paper was written by Stéphanie Gaudet, Professor, University of Ottawa. The brief was prepared by Joanne Gaudet.

For more information, please contact Stéphanie Gaudet at Stephanie.Gaudet@uottawa.ca.

The quantitative analysis carried out for this article is one component of a larger research project that also included qualitative analysis. The latter gave investigators in the research team the opportunity to understand the meaning Canadians give to their actions based on individual life narratives.