The key to the big society

David-Cameron-Nick-CleggSo Britain finally has a new government, after five days in which the news has mainly been that some men were going in or out of a building.  The policy positions of the first coalition since the second world war, hammered out in those meetings, will emerge over the coming days and weeks, but it seems likely that the Conservatives’ central proposal for domestic policy, the big society, will remain a significant part of the rhetoric.

Before the election, David Cameron described the big society as his party’s guiding philosophy. The Liberal Democrats share with their new Conservative colleagues a suspicion of the big state – which the big society is meant to render unnecessary – making this a relatively easy matter on which to collaborate. It is not yet clear, perhaps even to the Conservatives, quite what their big society amounts to. But one thing is plain: people over 50 will be crucial to its success. This could be, for older people, a big moment.

The most specific big society proposal to emerge so far is the creation of a network of 5,000 professional community organisers, an idea that fits well with the kind of thing that older workers are increasingly interested in doing, what the American social entrepreneur Marc Freedman has identified as ‘purpose-driven jobs.’

Not all the community organisers will, or should, be older people, of course, but the ambition to do something that builds community has been identified by study after study as very powerful in the second half of people’s lives. Harvard Medical School professor George Vaillant has found, what’s more, that this desire turns out to have very positive personal benefits: those who turn from conventional careers to community building in the latter part of their lives are emotionally happier and healthier by the time they reach their seventies.

The big society is potentially a win-win idea for older people – offering the kind of work they want to do, plus a way to be healthier and get more out of their lives. A win-win idea for government too, keeping older people out of doctor’s surgeries and perhaps even reducing rates of dementia.

Aside from community organisers, the big society should require older people to participate in all sorts of ways. In the short speech he gave before entering Downing Street, the new prime minister claimed to want to create a Britain ‘in which we do not just ask what are my entitlements, but what are my responsibilities, one where we don’t ask just what am I just owed, but more what can I give.’

It is clear that Britain cannot afford a class of people, fit and qualified to work, but believing they are entitled to do nothing, especially if they make up between 20% and a third of the population (depending on whether you look at over-65s or over-50s). We wouldn’t approve of the exclusion of any similar chunk of the population of younger people who were able to work – because they live on an estate, for example, or because they went to Eton.

The vision of retirement, including early retirement, sold to us by the insurance and leisure industries in the twentieth century is no longer sustainable. While it’s great to have a bit more time for the golf course and the aerobics class, doing nothing purposeful for between 30 and 60 years, perhaps half a life, is a recipe for depression.

Of course people should be entitled to take it a bit easier as they get older, especially after a lifetime of hard work. Of course there should be choice about how much activity people undertake and of what kind. But if so many older people weren’t excluded from the economy, younger people could also take it a bit easier at a time when they are trying to raise children. And then they wouldn’t burn out and feel they’d got to stop work.

No doubt the government would like to see more over-50s volunteering. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t enough for a big society. What David Cameron’s new world really needs is to use the experience dividend of older people in a way that helps to build the economy, pays them income, allows them in turn to pay taxes, contributes to the greater good and means that more people lead lives that matter.

Those with real choice can do it: Bill Gates left his day job at Microsoft at the age of 52 to work full time on global health and education. It would be great if we could all afford to turn our backs on working for income to take up philanthropy. We can’t. Many people are facing inadequate retirement savings. In the future, the sums simply won’t add up: how can people expect to save enough for a retirement that could last 30 years and more?

It would be much better to think in terms of what Marc Freedman has called Encore careers. These are proper careers, begun after 50, directed towards the public good. They may be more flexible than work in the first half of life, but they will use the skills of older people to the full. (They won’t be low-paid, time-filling, part-time retail jobs, in other words.) As Freedman says:

An Encore career is not a retirement job. It’s not a transitional phase. It’s not a bridge between the end of real work and the beginning of real leisure. It’s not leftover time to be killed. It’s an entire stage of life and work – a destination and a category of work unto itself.

As the new government starts to flesh out the policies demanded by its big society, it must find and create organisations that will help older people to contribute to social capital and ratify that contribution. They might be, for example, an over-50s version of Teach First, or headhunting firms that place older people in the third sector jobs and social enterprises. They might be funds that back intergenerational projects, where older people can prove they can solve some of the problems facing the young. They might be year-long management and training courses, offered on the basis that participants will commit to public service for at least two years subsequently.

There are all sorts of possibilities. A couple of things are clear: the big society won’t work if older people are marginalized in the way they are at present, nor if older people are seen simply as a cheap resource to be exploited. There is a big opportunity here, with all sorts of positive ramifications. It remains to be seen whether that entirely new phenomenon, a British coalition government, has the imagination and courage to take it.