The mere idea of working for free may sound counter-intuitive to all the assumptions of the market economy in which we live. Everything seems to have been commodified, bought, and sold at a fluctuating price on some marketplace. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner,” Adam Smith wrote in 1776, “but from their regard to their own interest”. Others may remind us that ‘there is no such a thing as a free lunch’ or that ‘you can’t have something for nothing’. Yet there is an almost unspoken paradox at the heart of liberal societies. That paradox is the fact that the very thing which holds societies together runs counter to all its other individualistic assumptions. Liberal societies rely on what is called ‘the civil society’, which essentially refers to the sum of voluntary organisations, and yes, the individual volunteers that make them. The civil society provides spaces beyond the realm of both the state and the market, provides means to organise against encroachments on liberties, and provides checks and balances on the exercise of power. Liberal societies aren’t only sustained through constitutions and formal structures. They also rely on the goodwill of the public-spirited citizens to run the voluntary associations which make up the civil society. Bluntly put, volunteering matters.
As with any other product or service that is sold to us, volunteering can also be justified on grounds of personal benefit. There are numerous articles you can read about how ‘doing good is good for you’ or how ‘giving back to the community can improve your mental health’. They cite interesting studies about how volunteering can actually improve your physical and mental health and even boost your lifespan. But this is my attempt to argue why it’s worthwhile if not necessary for us students, in particular, to spend some of our spare time doing something for free, particularly things which aren’t about our career plans or the future, for which we otherwise seem to be constantly encouraged to prepare.
Liberal societies aren’t only sustained through constitutions and formal structures. They also rely on the goodwill of the public-spirited citizens to run the voluntary associations which make up the civil society.
As students, you don’t need reminding of how busy Oxford terms are or how ‘there are only so many hours in the week’. Yet despite the workload (or maybe sometimes because of it), most people try to do other things alongside their studies, and some more than others. Whether it’s sport, music or drama, student politics, or even student journalism (the author obviously doesn’t know anything about the last two) we all turn to something in our spare time. Essays can be written about the micropolitics of student societies, or the minutiae of university life. But what I am trying to argue, in the least preachy way possible, is that we should also make time to volunteer for the sake of some cause, something, anything.
We are all encouraged to get involved in extracurricular activities. Yet a few minutes of self-reflection could shock us when realising how much of even what we may do outside the studies, still go back to us, our career plans (or lack thereof), our CVs, or our Linkedin profiles. In the minds of most students, there must be an ongoing inner dialogue about what they’d enjoy and what ‘may be helpful for the future’. For some, there may be an inner struggle between the pursuit of money versus meaning. For a lucky few, the two worlds may even overlap.
It may be unfair for all of this to be completely dismissed as cynical careerism or ruthless ambition. Though, needless to say, the kind of personal ambition which turns one into a calculating moral vacuum deserves nothing but contempt. Yet at the same time, it would not be overly catastrophic to say that the labour market that our generation will enter is much more competitive and demanding than the ones our ‘forebears’ entered twenty or even ten years ago. If you listen to most talks by the alumni of this very university about their journeys and their successful careers, you might be able to spot a pattern. (And yes, some of them can actually be quite inspiring!). You may detect a common theme: a reassuring tone of ‘Don’t worry! I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life when I was your age and yet…” and this is the quiet part ‘Look how far I’ve gone!’. Perhaps that is exactly what we would have also said if we ever end up in their shoes.
Though, needless to say, the kind of personal ambition which turns one into a calculating moral vacuum deserves nothing but contempt.
But I want to summon all my ‘powers to persuade’ (of which there must be very modest and meagre amounts) to argue for the importance of pursuing causes through volunteering as well as thinking about and preparing for a career. And whilst we are at it, to reassess the value we place on employable skills over the personal traits which make up our characters.
A favourite story of mine about a historical figure I find quite interesting is one about Clement Attlee when he was Prime Minister shortly after the second world war. It is said that Attlee was once advised by a member of his inner circle to promote some supposedly talented Labour MP to ministerial office. Yet, the then Prime Minister who thought he knew this young MP well, is alleged to have protested with reluctance “It’s not about ability. It’s about character!”.
This brings me to David Brooks’ book ‘The Road to Character’ which I once read years ago. (Yes, I know! I am prepared to face your judgement for confessing to have once read a ‘self-help’ book). The passage I most vividly remember is the distinction Brooks makes between what he calls ‘The résumé virtues’ and ‘The eulogy virtues’. He makes the point, very eloquently, that the kind of traits that we will be remembered for in our lives may not necessarily be the ones for which we are rewarded by employers in the labour market. Indeed, we have an economy that rewards ‘risk-taking’ (sometimes used as a code word for greed and recklessness) rather than kindness and generosity. Yet the so-called eulogy virtues are meant to be the things that make a life well lived — whether you were kind or brave, honest or faithful.
Indeed, we have an economy that rewards ‘risk-taking’ (sometimes used as a code word for greed and recklessness) rather than kindness and generosity.
And the most practical way for us to work on our ‘eulogy virtues’, to inject life with more purpose and meaning, and to improve our characters (or ‘souls’) is, in my view, through volunteering. Not for the sake of the CV or employability but for the sake of some cause, and for the sake of others. Whether it’s doing a shift at the Turl Street Homelessness Action or your local food bank (of which there are apparently more branches than there are branches of McDonald’s, by the way) there is always something to which you can lend a hand or dedicate an hour. By spending some of our time doing things for others, we may end up remembering what life can be and should be about.