October 2017 – Discouraging involvement in voluntary organisations?

Some of my essays are – despite all appearances to the contrary!! – carefully researched and considered. Others are written without being bogged down in too much research and cogitation; they come “from the heart” – or that is my excuse! This is one such, following up an earlier essay.

I am a member of several voluntary organisations of various kinds. In two cases, both associated with waterways, I was one of the younger members 30 years ago, and I am still one of the younger members! The heretical thought occurs, that I am already too old to be part of a “successor generation”, and, if these organisations are to survive, let alone thrive, in the long run, it will require heavy involvement by the under-55s (those born since 1962) and preferably those in their mid-30s (thus, born since 1982 and unable to remember Margaret Thatcher as anything other than an old ousted Prime Minister from a distant past).

I see no sign of such a generation arising, but it seems fruitful to imagine that there are people under 55 keen to take over and run organisations. If this was so, by some miracle, how might the 60 plus people who run these bodies successfully resist the tidal wave of succession coming towards them? Here, with the mildest air of satire, are some suggestions as to how such successors might be discouraged. All are derived from personal experience.

The first idea is to induce and sustain complacency. The membership might be the over-60s, but when the sons and daughters of the ancients reach 60, they will somehow become interested and involved. There is no problem, it seems, we will just need to await the attrition of time; and by the time the sons and daughters attain their free prescriptions (should this policy persist in England), we will probably be too old to care.

The second idea is related, and can develop as the grim truth above develops. This is to denounce the rising generations as just not interested, unwilling or unable to bother; spending all their spare time on unspecified but unnecessary pursuits. This provides a faint reminder of the kind of disquiet that my parents’ and grandparents’ generation voiced about my generation. We were a lot of layabouts only too interested in rubbishy music, growing their hair long, protesting about their elders and betters….but, in fact, joining and furthering many initiatives that the older generations had started, and many that they had not. Denouncing the behaviour and mores of feckless youth is something that I hope (with some struggle) that I have managed to resist, but it is a useful standby that absolves us from wondering whether we are, somehow, responsible for a lack of participation.

This gives me the opportunity to introduce one of my pet hates – that silly word “youngsters”, and, some way behind “youth” (on Merseyside, it tends to be “the youth” as though this is a group with strictly bordered membership and attributes). Or, even “yoof”, but I am starting to digress, as many of us “elderly” (all the same, apparently) begin to do. Well, I can recall being young, and the moment I heard that appalling phrase “youngster”, feeling my back going up, as indeed it still does today. When I was young, I shared a year and decade of birth with many other people, but this did not mean that I took on their attributes, or they mine. There are common elements (class remains the biggest divide in British society), but the young, the middle-aged, and the old (and the “old old”) have, and always have had, multiple variations in stance and experiences. So to pick out “youngsters”, and to think “we” can address “youngsters” – well, my feelings must be clear. But, when we are trying to discourage involvement, to call people “youngsters” is ideal – it saves the provision of signs pointing to the exit, or ones saying “new members not welcome here”. To refer to someone as a “youngster” – seemingly an expression known in the Royal Navy as long ago as 1801, and used unequivocally to express the inherent superiority of those older and better – is to dismiss any suggestion that a “young person” could make any serious or valid involvement. Organisations that try to provide for “youngsters” may be doing their best to keep such people out.

I am led to consider some autobiographical experiences by the designation of “youth”. Despite being in possession of my free prescriptions and eye tests, I have still been the target of personal attacks by at least two “experts” on waterways history; one born in 1937 and one in 1952. Snide condescension and accusations about the many failings of my writings have not enamoured me to these characters, and have led me to wonder whether I should step far away from the parochial field of waterways history and the odd and uncompanionable figures who people parts of that parish. I have yet to make up my mind about that, but at least I have learned two lessons. One is that I know what it is like to be attacked by people who seem to feel themselves superior in experience and analytical rigour (as “historians”), and thus what it must be like for other people. It is so very easy to discourage most people, and one of the best ways to do so is to make them feel that they can never attain the understanding of a superior generation, and that they may as well give up any such ambition. When it comes to recent history, there is no substitute for being one “who was there”, and such history will disappear as memories and their bearers die out. The second is the feeling that until such people are gone, into retirement or maybe retiring from life altogether, there is little point in trying to pursue research and writing while they stand there to invalidate, to block enquiry, to pour scorn, and to write the scathing, inaccurate and patronising “reviews”. The easiest (and maybe best) revolutions are those in which those in power give it up as it decays, and, albeit reluctantly, accept the inevitable, and let others take over. However, as someone said to me in a quite different context, we are hardly in a revolutionary moment at present, and there are no signs of any overthrow in prospect. So, to keep out any future revolutionaries, it is best to devalue their efforts, their commitments and their achievements (actual or potential), and to give the impression that, no matter what they do, you and yours will always be superior, so any aspirations over future involvement would be futile. That should help to keep them away!

A fifth thought concerns the way in which, if all this fails and new members still manage to join organisations, they can be further discouraged. One is to ensure that they do not feel welcome. No need to slam doors or refuse entry, when a meeting can be conducted in such a way that the wrong sort of people will feel discouraged. Having joined one organisation some time previously, I was stopped at the door with “Are you a member?”. I went to a public meeting some years ago, at which a speaker was introduced as “This is Graham, who needs no introduction”. I did not then know who Graham was, but it was clear that, if I and others did not, we were inferiors who should know our place; and that place could well be outside. Another approach, one which I recall from my employment (where it was carefully exercised) was to have a ruling group that knew their way round the arcane rules and regulations, and indeed the language and procedures to be used; this ensured that new members would have to knuckle under or leave. If anyone should protest, it is always possible to embarrass them over their naivety and inexperience, and indeed to ensure that the two are bracketed together. A few “in-joke” references should help to reinforce such feelings.

A closely-related axis of discouragement concerns the history of the organisation and its activities. Here are some phrases that disciples (those that do manage to knuckle under, and become part of the “young fogeys” who are important to limit any new enthusiasts) should quickly learn. One is “we’ve already done that”, when anything seemingly new is suggested, sometimes reinforced by “oh, that’s been done to death”. When an inferior offers to do something, “oh no, we need an expert” is a useful rejoinder. Pushed too far, “you don’t know what you are talking about” makes a good standby. And the crowning glory, when an alternative way of proceeding is suggested, is: “oh no, we’ve always done it this way”, even when some process is patently not working.

And finally, if some new members persist, there are two more subtle approaches. One is the elevation of some exalted member from the past; if you profess not to know much about them, it is clear that you do not really “belong”. For really persistent people, the best weapon is to tell them that they are expected to carry out some task (making tea, fetching milk and other supplies, providing transport, staffing a bar at social functions; the last a “request” I received), and when they state that this may not be possible, to imply that they are therefore not really committed and are demonstrating “disloyalty”.

That concludes my preliminary thoughts on how to discourage participation and involvement. Over the last 40 years or so, I have encountered all of these features, and have often indeed become discouraged. Maybe this diatribe has raised the odd smile, as might even these weak attempts at satire. However, there could be someone reading this whose lip is curling at the naivety of these propositions. Good lord, these are merely the most minor attempts at discouragement, written by someone who is clearly a novice in the noble art of discouragement. And, in any case, surely the purpose of discouragement is to ensure that survivors are battle-heartened, pilgrims for whom there is no discouragement, even if they are rather few in number….. Well, I would be impressed to see these musings superseded by a masterful exposition of the true art of discouragement, and would concede, in the face of this, that I have led a sheltered existence.

I would, however, be much more impressed by a strategy which would acknowledge how discouraged recruits can be, and could see that organisations that are worthy of survival (not all, voluntary or otherwise are, and many should fade away) can be renewed, so that their worthier purposes can continue to be fulfilled. I do not have any answers here, but perhaps to consider discouragement and its possible reversals might make a start. The other is to cease to stereotype people who might become involved; indeed, despite what I have written, if many more of the over-60s could be encouraged, that would be good. Unless the under-55s can be addressed, however, many organisations will not survive, and that has to involve the over-60s standing aside (if necessary) rather than standing in the way, and for encouragement, encouragement and encouragement to be the watchwords.

In my most portentous moments, I feel that my generation could now make a major contribution by helping to ease a transition to those whose futures are longer than sadly, are mine and most of those I know. We might be better remembered if that was the case.