Accessibility links

One of the main reasons that older people give for not going online is that "people like them" don't using the Internet. No amount of free computers or cut priced broadband will change that. That's why Race Online 2012, the organisation that is pushing to get more of us online, constantly uses examples of older people using the Internet as a key way of encouraging other older people to go online. If people feel that it is normal for people like them to do something, then it is very easy for them to do it.

One of the main reasons that older people give for not going online is that "people like them" don't using the Internet. No amount of free computers or cut priced broadband will change that. That's why Race Online 2012, the organisation that is pushing to get more of us online, constantly uses examples of older people using the Internet as a key way of encouraging other older people to go online. If people feel that it is normal for people like them to do something, then it is very easy for them to do it.

I recently interviewed a middle aged woman, let's call her Lynn. She explained to me that she does not have enough time to be involved in her local community. She said that she would love to volunteer but she has so many other responsibilities that she just can't find the time. She seemed to regret not being able to volunteer and, more importantly, she seemed to be somewhat ashamed. I think she felt like she should volunteer and that I might disapprove of her for not volunteering.

The more Lynn spoke the more amazed I became at the range of things she did, in her community. As well as working full time she also looks after her dad on Saturdays, her mum on Sundays and various grandchildren 3 nights a week. She also helps neighbours write letters to officials and has a regular drink with her neighbour whose husband died recently.

Lynn doesn't volunteer in the way we normally understand the word. However, she does an incredible amount to improve the lives of those around her. In fact, the strain this had on her was obvious to see. She told me that she feels like she never has any time for herself and she takes medication for depression.

People think of a volunteer as someone who gives their time, for free, to an organisation, for largely selfless reasons

Why does Lynn feel like she should give more to her local community? Why does she feel ashamed by how little she is doing, when she is doing so much? Perhaps the answer can be found in our stereotype of the volunteer.

People think of a volunteer as someone who gives their time, for free, to an organisation, for largely selfless reasons.

For Lynn, volunteers are not "people like me". They are people who can afford to give their time to others for free, expecting to get nothing back apart from perhaps a sense of satisfaction.

Under the banner of the Big Society, the government has made a number of recommendations and exhortations to increase the amount of volunteering in Britain. According to Ipsos MORI the number of hours that people say they volunteer has remained constant for decades now, despite various governments' best efforts. I am sure I am not alone in being sceptical about the potential of current government initiatives to increase this number.

There is a risk though that exhortations from the government for us to volunteer more will make people like Lynn feel slightly more ashamed.

The government could take a different approach; recognising and celebrating the contribution that people like Lynn make, so that others find it easier to contribute to their community in the way that Lynn does.

 

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