Technology is making us feel more alone. Is a return to volunteerism the answer?

Today, on International Volunteer Day, we face a paradox. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has made us more connected and globalized than ever before, yet it is also shaping an age of civic disengagement.

In his bestseller Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam identified a sharp rise in Americans’ civic disengagement over the last generation, with empty town hall meetings reflecting “a giant swing toward the individualist pole in our culture, society, and politics.” Although it is twenty years old, it is still starkly relevant today: a new study by two psychologists in a Public Library of Science journal has proposed that “the more someone uses a smartphone for information, the less likely they are to trust neighbours, strangers, and people from other religions or nationalities.”

Our use of technology is just one factor driving changes in the world of work, but this correlation is bad news for advanced democracies, because strong civic life is a good predictor of the quality of, and trust in, public institutions. Against increasing solitude and disengagement from public life, what are some antidotes to this modern malaise?

One possible cure is a return to the original social networks supplanted by smartphones – volunteer organizations. These can help members stay ahead of the developments that are already happening with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as well as the trends explained in this year’s World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report. The report asked the Chief Human Resources Officers of today’s largest employers to identify the core drivers of change in their industries up to 2020.

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