Implications of the rise of egoism for altruistic social participation

Bill Calcutt, University of Wollongong

Doctoral research being conducted under the auspices of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre into the primary motives for volunteering in emergency services in Australia has highlighted the potential broader implications of evolving social values for traditional forms of altruistic civic engagement.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of emergency services in Australia and constitute a unique skilled workforce that provides an essential public service. Volunteering in emergency services represents exceptional civic engagement for a range of reasons. These include the vital (sometimes life-saving) importance to the community of the unpaid services provided; the inherently demanding (sometimes arduous and hazardous) nature of the tasks undertaken in responding to emergency events; the specialist competencies required to undertake diverse emergency tasks safely; and the level of personal commitment required to respond at short notice to emergency events. Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show a significant decline in the rate of volunteering in Australia (from 34% in 2010 to 31% in 2014), and emergency services have experienced annual volunteer turnover exceeding 20%, which has major financial and capability implications.

The Valuing Volunteers study is seeking to better understand the primary motives for volunteering in Australian emergency services, and to determine what role the alignment of individual, unit and corporate values may play in volunteer satisfaction and turnover. Using the Schwartz theory of basic human values as the theoretical framework, I surveyed the values preferences of volunteer members of the State Emergency Service in two states. The surveys revealed statistically significant differences in volunteers’ values priorities by gender and generation, with females and Baby Boomers expressing a stronger preference for altruism-related values and Gen Y expressing a stronger preference for egoism-related values.

These findings, and the apparent decline in volunteering nationally, raise broader questions about the changing nature of social participation in an increasingly complex, fast-paced and time-constrained world. It seems likely that the convergence and interaction of powerful and unprecedented disruptive forces in the 21st century is progressively transforming the way citizens in postmodern societies interpret and construct their own individual and social realities. The consequent diversification of perspectives is facilitating a generational shift in the community’s dominant values from altruism to egoism.

Several powerful disruptive forces are driving this change. New information technologies that enable virtually universal and instantaneous access to vast quantities of undifferentiated information challenge the capacity to distinguish between fact, opinion and emotion. New communication technologies enable and reinforce the capacity of autonomous individuals to construct and sustain their own unique and highly personal world view. There is growing social and economic polarisation related to globalisation-related dislocation and the ongoing displacement of labour through automation, while the corrosive influence of terrorism-inspired fear and suspicion post-9/11 has eroded trust and social cohesion.

A fundamental shift in the community’s dominant higher-order values from altruism to egoism has significant implications for many traditional forms of civic engagement, not just volunteering. The development of multiple divergent perspectives of social reality has the potential to erode the community’s commitment to shared core values (including conceptions of the common good), and diminish support for a range of long-established institutions (including confidence in democratic processes).

These social atomisation effects are likely to be accentuated in Australia because the nation has traditionally relied on amorphous politically-mediated narratives to articulate shared core values in the absence of formal institutions and explicit norms, such as a Bill of Rights. In an evolving pluralist society, the task of describing the enduring characteristics of a common Australian identity (who ‘we’ are) is fraught with complexity given such a fluid and dynamic environment. The coherence of shared values and a common identity are further clouded by palpable contradictions between the nation’s idealised image as a modern, affluent, progressive, fair and tolerant society and the reality for a growing number of citizens who are not included in or beneficiaries of this archetype.

The Federal Government’s introduction of an Australian values statement in 2007 was apparently intended to articulate more clearly a set of shared core values as the foundation for strengthening social cohesion. The recent introduction of Australia’s multicultural statement and the subsequent tightening of Australian citizenship requirements appear to have similar intent. Time will tell whether these belated efforts at articulating and formalising a set of shared core values will have meaning and resonance in highly diverse communities that are increasingly focused on individual autonomy and self-interest.

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