"Voluntary work creates an impediment to perceiving and taking seriously the needs of strangers"

Welfare-state bureaucracy has been under fire for more than 20 years. Reformers say that the poor get a better service from volunteers with whom they can form more flexible personal relationships. Wrong, argues Richard Sennett.

When the young John Maynard Keynes resigned from the India Office in 1908, his superior wrote back: "I have never been quite able to satisfy myself that a government office . . . is the best thing for a young man of energy and right ambitions. It is a comfortable means of life . . . But it is rarely exciting or strenuous and does not make sufficient call on the combative and self-assertive elements of human nature." Others less ambitious had to be pushed, as security degenerated into complacency. The Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri evokes that degeneration in describing an office given over to "a time-tested culture of tea-drinking, gossip and procrastination . . . It was, in a sense, a relaxing place to be in, like withdrawing to some outpost that was cut off from the larger movements of the world."

The institutions which replaced rigid bureaucracy in the later 20th century made fewer social demands on those who worked within; these same light institutions transformed the provision of welfare. Both those who leaped and those who were pushed found they had lost something in this transformed world, whatever its freedoms; they had lost a way to structure mutual respect.

During the boom of the 1980s and 1990s, flat, short organisations proved better, throughout the private sector, at seizing opportunities than firms based on the traditional bureaucratic pyramid. In 1965, IBM had 23 standardised links in its chain of command; by 2000, only seven degrees of formal separation stood between the bottom and the top. Despite the end of the boom - and the need for more stable relations with suppliers, investors and dedicated employees - flat, short institutions have entrenched themselves. No global business can be done without them, no new firm will ever be created on the principle of lifetime employment. More ominously, the flat, short company has become a model for organisations in civil society.

"Short", in welfare reform, means a state reducing its res- ponsibilities by replacing permanent or fixed guarantees with more temporary acts of help. The most dramatic example in America and western Europe is the cut in the duration of unemployment benefits. Short welfare diminishes government responsibility and shifts the management of fate back on to the individual. The result, as the policy analyst Patrick Dunleavy argues, is to create inequalities between passive dependants and more independent consumers of welfare. The first require guidance; the second require only resources. Into the first category falls a 90-year-old struggling to manage his or her pension investments, into the second that same person 40 years before. Into the first category fall the perplexed immigrant couple trying to choose a school for their children in London, into the second fall the parents who have lived in London all their lives. Reformers tend to offer the first group a poorer quality of service.

Further, the flat, short structure can concentrate power. In supposedly "devolved" systems of welfare, central government determines how much localities can spend, rather than what every citizen needs. Hollowing out a welfare bureaucracy reduces the interpretative communication between layers which marks the bureaucratic pyramid. "Need" becomes an abstraction, a number, a datum instantly assessed from the top rather than a negotiable human relationship.

Demand greater than supply pushes up profits in a business, but produces misery in a welfare state. This is one reason for diminishing welfare demand by putting welfare clients to work. But there is another: work has long seemed character-building, increasing both self-esteem and respect from others. In the case of homeless adolescents, access to work has indeed provided profound emotional as well as material support, a strengthening of self-esteem shown in numerous studies. Adults on welfare who had the capacity to work but not the opportunities respond similarly well to these programmes.

Yet the work these new workers do complicates the issue of mutual esteem and respect. Though some parts of American government have experimented with training former welfare clients for viable, skilled jobs with a future, the work available is more often low-skill service labour in flexible businesses: work in fast-food restaurants, or as contract-term guards, or as temporary hospital aides. The ways of working in these organisations are, for the middle class as well as for the poor, not very cohesive.

In pyramids, people who loyally served the institution were meant to be rewarded for their loyalty. Now seniority, service and loyalty have fewer claims on firms. In Only the Paranoid Survive, the ex- president of the Intel Corporation declares: "Fear of competition, fear of bankruptcy, fear of being wrong, and fear of losing can all be powerful motivators. How do we cultivate fear of losing in our employees? We can only do that if we feel it ourselves." Detachment makes sense in such organisations. People are meant to treat work as an episodic activity, a series of tasks as one jumps from place to place.

Flat, short forms of work tend to forge weak bonds of fraternity among workers. The social analyst Robert Putnam has found, for instance, that co-workers account for fewer than 10 per cent of friendships in America; when people are asked to whom they would turn to discuss an important issue, fewer than half listed a single co-worker. Moreover, the flexible work world tends to breed passivity in its bottom echelons. In an unstable institution, where people have no viable claims on the organisation, they tend to keep their heads down in order to survive. The sociologist Jill Andresky Fraser calls this "emotional detachment as a survival strategy".

These social deficits of short, flat organisations apply particularly to new, needy workers at the bottom. New workers have trouble forming support networks in such workplaces; the climate of detachment, institutional distrust and passivity is not good for learning how to work. Their problems are sharpened because the last and lowest hired are often the first fired; without expensive employment assistance, these entry-level jobs can prove particularly demoralising to workers who formerly relied on welfare.

The problems faced by those in welfare-to-work point to a basic fact about all flexible organisations: their social bonds are weak. Many observers have concluded that community life will have to make up for this social deficit.

Classical sociology contrasts Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft - the first naming merely function, the second more emotionally full relations between people. The contrast is between the behaviour of strangers and that of neighbours, between big places and small ones, between behaviour which emphasises rules and behaviour more spontaneous in character. Many modern welfare reformers prefer Gemeinschaft; it seems a less demeaning context of care.

But this contrast is too simple. Successful welfare "in the community" often has to operate by impersonal and rigid rules. One of the most effective youth organisations in Chicago, the Chicago Area Project, began in the 1930s and, for several generations, did street work with delinquents, work which required sharply honed skills. Adolescent criminals frequently try to "wind up" social workers, for instance, by being as sullen or aggressive as possible, trying to provoke the adults into losing control. Responding emotionally would spell disaster.

The adults who learnt how to cope with this on the streets were not locals, but outsiders who had drawn over the years on the accumulated knowledge of others. The time required to make such programmes work is not that of casual, daily life. A contemporary programme for young drug addicts in Paris presupposes about 18 months to establish an effective network of contacts with the community of drug addicts, and then about five years to wean them individually off drugs.


In Chicago as in Paris, good street work requires a planned narrative whose denouement is exit from crime, if not from addiction; the Chicago Area Project looks highly bureaucratic to an outsider because this long exit requires the help of doctors, legal advice, as well as financial support for the offenders and occasionally for their families. To eschew formal bureaucracy is often, in effect, to provide little help.

The American preference for spontaneous and voluntary forms of communal welfare has religious roots. Protestantism pushed face-to-face communication in the direction of intimate revelation - to reveal oneself, and to experience the revelations of others, became a kind of final test of mutual respect.

In the 1830s, Tocqueville noted how far this revelatory intimacy had advanced: what the American volunteer gets from good works is a personal relationship. In his view, charity had become the means to the end of creating small, local communities.

The danger is to mistake charity for friendship - a confusion which attended American poor-visiting in the 19th century. The bourgeois American "friends" often sought to form face-to-face relations with the poor they visited, more so than in Britain. More modern forms of American volunteerism have been similarly personal, as in the "big brother" organisations which provide role models and surrogates for missing fathers. But very few friendships can bear the weight of providing sustained help. Just as a refusal to respond to provocation or manipulation is an impersonal, professional skill, so the long-term, intensive commitment of time to a client cannot follow the deepening of intimacy in a friendship; the caseworker hopes that eventually the client will be able to loosen the bond.

The characteristic figure of American welfare since Tocqueville's time has been the local volunteer, and the social history of volunteering has turned largely around the ways volunteers themselves had to discover and deal with the possible confusions of help and friendship. The importance of sorting out what it means to volunteer has grown, in recent years, as the "reform" of big, pyramidal institutions has progressed: ever more burdens are thrown on the volunteer's shoulders. And the superficiality and instability of social relations in much of modern work makes the idea of community service seem even more important.

Today, the American volunteer has become a fairly well-defined social figure. As elderly people live longer and in better health, their willingness to volunteer has indeed grown, while students and young people increasingly do public service projects as part of their education. But individuals in the 30-50 age group, particularly those in their thirties, donated their time significantly less in 1998, than in, say, 1975.

This gap is sometimes explained by the increasing pressures of work. But that explanation alone is not enough. By emphasising the virtue of the voluntary act, originating in individual desire, Protestant welfare runs up against the problem of individuals who do not want to give, or to participate in the public realm.

When he coined the term "individualism" in the second volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville drew out this problem in the most dramatic way. Individualism, he argued, consists in love of family and friends, but indifference to any social relations beyond that intimate sphere. Social equality only makes the problem of individualism worse: because most people seem the same as oneself in tastes, beliefs and needs, it seems one can and should leave it to them to deal with their own problems.

Voluntary organisations are an institutional counterweight to individual, egalitarian indifference to others. Today, the amount of wealth the US puts into non-profit charities and foundations is staggering - about 12 times the rate of contributions in Britain. However, while in both America and Europe the total amounts given to the not-for-profit sector are growing, the amounts contributed per individual are falling; it is the wealthy few who are swelling the coffers. At the end of the great economic boom of the 1990s, Americans donated less per head than they did in 1940, at the end of the Great Depression.

So the individual impulse to give remains an issue; those individuals most likely to give are people who then volunteer for community service. In the US, one study has found that most "institutional kindness" comes from volunteers who want to transform something in their own characters, adding to themselves and their experiences of others what they cannot find in the cold world of functional or rational relationships. Another has shown how voluntary organisations attract recruits by promising, indeed demanding, changes in their "core selves".

The political analyst Robert Putnam has drawn a distinction between what he calls "bonding" and "bridging" social relationships. Bonding relationships consist of those associations which are "inward-looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups". This is the realm of face-to-face; it remains strong. Bridging relationships are "outward-looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages". This is the civic realm of strangers, and it is growing ever weaker.

The difference comes into focus in considering blood donations. In all western societies, these rise dramatically during times of war or national attack; people spontaneously "bridge". In more tranquil times, American rates of blood donation have declined - from 80 units to 62 units between 1987 and 1997 - whereas in Britain they have held up. The British sociologist Richard Titmuss, in The Gift Relationship (1970), categorised donors into different types from A, "the donor who sells his blood for what the market will bear", to H, the altruistic donor who most closely approximates "in social reality the abstract concept of a 'free human gift'". American donors spanned the spectrum from A to H. British donors were more clustered at the free-gift end. More than 70 per cent came from families in which no one had been a blood recipient; they were not returning blood their kin had used. Nor did they have any idea where or to whom their blood would go: there could be no face-to-face interaction with recipients. In Titmuss's view, civil society is strong when that interaction is not needed, weak when the gift is personalised.

Following Titmuss, other sociologists looked at breast milk. Because breast milk - given mostly to prematurely born infants - is hard to express and requires repeated sessions to accumulate in usable amounts, its donation is far more arduous than gifts of blood. Again the rate of donation is higher in Britain than in America, and most donors, write the researchers, know that "donations are for unnamed strangers without distinction of age, sex, medical condition, income, class, religion or ethnic group".


None of this should be taken as evidence that Americans are selfish: they point, rather, to a structural problem in the American communal model. On the positive side, this model encourages personally fulfilling activities such as mentoring; on the negative side, it creates an impediment to perceiving and taking seriously the needs of strangers. It could be said the dilemma is peculiarly American, a compensation for lack of a viable, more impersonal public realm. But the context is global rather than national. The spread of flexible institutions of work is more than an American phenomenon; so is the effort to restructure welfare along new bureaucratic lines. Both arouse the desire for a compensating, countervailing community.

Volunteering is, however, a poor remedy for binding strangers together, or dealing with social complexities. It lacks what might be called an architecture of sympathy - a progressive movement up from identifying with individuals one knows to individuals one doesn't know. The prerequisite of autonomy is missing too: the willingness to remain strangers to one another in a social relationship. The Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan has argued that the civilising functions of the welfare state require the "generalisation of interdependence" in societies. Yet the sphere of mutual regard is too small, too intimate, when the volunteer is taken to be the ideal figure providing care to others. Saying this is not to denigrate volunteers, but rather to criticise the idealisation of these "friends" when something other than friendship is required.

Just as welfare reformers have celebrated local volunteers, they have also attacked public service workers - and indeed the very ethos of public service. For the past quarter-century, more largely, the honour of public service work has been slighted.

Those subject to this onslaught have defended their self-respect by asserting the value of useful rather than flexible labour. In a recent investigation into public service work in Britain (in which I took part), a London street sweeper declared: "On Mondays I certainly get job satisfaction. It's the worst day for rubbish because there's only a skeleton staff on at weekends. When I look back at the street I've just done and all the piles of rubbish are gone and it's clean, I'm pleased." A dog handler for the customs services who sniffs out drugs with her pooch says: "I feel valued both by my employer and the public. People know it is a worthwhile job, stopping drugs coming into the country."

The defence mounted by these public service workers focuses not just on one's value to the organisation, nor just on one's value to the general public, but on the act of doing something useful. Usefulness takes on the characteristics of craftwork, characteristics which include an egoistic involvement in the task itself. People simply believe that the work is worth doing.

American public service workers share these values, but American social workers tend to stay in public service for much shorter lengths of time than their British counterparts; their rates of turnover have steadily increased in the past generation. The increasingly flat and short practices of healthcare are driving doctors in both countries out of public health services. In both America and Britain, there is now an enormous Sargasso Sea of floating part-time teachers who move in and out of the profession.

Service to others certainly matters to public service workers, but the craft aspect of usefulness helps people to persevere under conditions in which their honour is frequently impugned. The work itself provides objective standards of feeling oneself worth- while. The street sweeper likes a clean street, the handler of drug-sniffing dogs likes handling dogs.

Focusing on the craft of useful work separates this kind of caregiving from compassion. It does not turn on pity for those in need. The craft dimensions of useful work serve as a caution against the error of believing that doing good necessarily entails self-sacrifice. Usefulness must, by contrast, have an inherent value, a focus on a specific object, which gives the service worker satisfaction.

Pyramidal bureaucracies could provide everyone a place and a proper function, see them as whole human beings, though at the cost of denying them participation. The institutional innovations of our time do not place people stably, and do not see people whole. In compensation, people may seek to connect to others, voluntarily, locally, face to face. A social void may indeed be filled this way. But there is no solution to the problem of welfare here.

Richard Sennett teaches sociology at the London School of Economics and New York University. This essay is an edited extract from Respect: the formation of character in an age of inequality, published this month by Allen Lane (£20)