Sunday, 18 March 2018

CAMRA is not alone

Reading carefully through all the “Special Resolution” bumph which came with this month’s “What’s Brewing”, and also looking at the “manifestos” presented by the candidates for the National Executive election, I was reminded, yet again that the biggest problem facing CAMRA today is not that of where to focus future campaigning, or indeed whether the organisation should embrace “other types” of beer.

Instead, the elephant in the room, which no-one seems to know how to address, is that of a declining active membership;  along with that of an increasing aged one. Rest assured though, for CAMRA is not alone in being hit with this double-whammy. Other membership based organisations are equally affected, as I  discovered last week.

For some time now I have wanted to become more involved with the activities of the town where I live, and find some way of contributing towards what goes on in Tonbridge. A friend of mine belongs to a group which carries out voluntary work at the local Haysden Country Park, but this involves a regular monthly commitment, every second Saturday.

My friend is retired, so is able to give more freely of his time than I am, and whilst the outdoor work does sound appealing, the monthly involvement  is something I am unable to commit to at present. Instead the idea of becoming a member of Tonbridge’s twin-town association seemed more appropriate.
Tonbridge has been twinned with the German town of Heusenstamm since 1984,  and there are established links between many local groups with their opposite number in Heusenstamm. These include music and theatre groups as well as schools and sports clubs, and these participate in shared activities, including exchange visits and joint ventures.

The Heusenstamm Friendship Circle, aims to bring together those who are interested in twinning, to encourage people to take part in visits to Heusenstamm and to receive visitors from Germany. It also helps and advises those who wish to make private visits, and to meet socially.

Heusenstamm lies in the Frankfurt Rhine Main Region to the south east of Frankfurt am Main, and is one of several towns in the Offenbach district of the state of Hesse. It has a population of around 18,000 people, which is just under half that of Tonbridge. Both towns have a number of historic buildings, including a castle each.

As someone who visits Germany on a fairly regular basis, the idea of joining the Friendship Circle seemed a logical one, particularly as  Heusenstamm is situated in a part of the country I am not familiar with. I am reasonably fluent in German, so I thought this also would be of mutual benefit. I consequently filled out my membership form and posted it off with my £10 annual membership fee.

A few days alter I received a call from the secretary, thanking me for my application and welcoming me to the group. She informed me the association would be holding its AGM the following week, and asked if I would like to attend. I said yes, and so last Tuesday evening I walked down the town’s Rose & Crown Hotel, ready to meet some of the group’s members.

It had been explained to me earlier that the AGM would take place after the Circle’s Annual Dinner. It was too late for me to have booked a place, but this was not a problem as far as I was concerned. On arriving at the Rose & Crown, I was shown into the function room, and introduced to the secretary and chairman.

So far so good, they both seemed very pleasant and helpful people and were obviously pleased to welcome a new member to the group. Their pleasure was no doubt enhanced by the fact that not only did I represent “new blood”, but compared to the rest of those present, I was positively youthful.

Now I am no spring chicken, but looking around, I can safely say that with the possible exception of the town mayor (who was probably present  in an honorary capacity anyway), I was by far the youngest person in the room. And I thought CAMRA had a problem!

I sat and listened politely as the meeting worked its way through the AGM agenda. In many ways it was similar to a CAMRA AGM, with reports from the chairman, secretary and treasurer, the presentation and approval of accounts etc, and when it came to the election of officers, the similarities became even more striking.

There were no takers for either the position of chairman or that of secretary. This was despite both incumbents having expressed a wish to stand down. It transpired that both had served over 20 years apiece; small wonder that they fancied a rest! With no possible successors coming forward, they both agreed to carry on, but as the secretary confided to me after the meeting, being an octogenarian is all well and good, but the group was definitely in need of some new blood.

This of course was blindingly obvious, especially to a newcomer like me, but being a newbie I had no intention of putting myself forward; not until I had learnt a great deal more about the group and its German counterpart.

And therein lies the problem facing voluntary groups today, as for whatever reason, people don’t want to get involved to the extent they would have done when such organisations were founded. I include CAMRA here, of course, as well as the Heusenstamm Friendship Circle, and there is no easy answer.

I left the meeting, as soon as it was polite enough to do so, and made my way to Fuggles. I ordered myself a well-earned pint of Larkin’s Porter and sent a text to Eileen, advising her that I was the youngest person present at the meeting. “You won’t be going again, then?” was her response.

I didn’t reply straight away, in fact it wasn’t until breakfast time the following morning that the matter came up again. “I’m not sure,” was my honest response. I don’t mind getting involved when the group have visitors over from Germany; that way I can put my language skills to the test and get in some much needed practice.

I would also be quite happy to travel over to Heusenstamm, when the town holds its traditional Christmas Market, known as the Nikolausmarkt. That way I can get to know people better, and also lend a hand with the English Produce Stall which the Friendship Circle run at the market. But joining the committee would be a completely different ball-game and not one I wish to contemplate at the moment.

As with CAMRA the problem is all too obvious. Both groups need to attract younger people to their ranks, or they are doomed to wither and die. No-one seems to know the answer, but the simple fact remains people just don’t want to get involved with voluntary organisations anymore.

In some ways I felt relieved that it wasn’t just CAMRA who are affected by this lack of involvement, but I feel the answer is much more than just a generational thing.  Society today is much more fractured than it was a few generations ago, and people seem so much more wrapped up in their own little bubble.

Whether this bodes well for society in general, remains to be seen.



Dave said...

In the US most young people volunteer at work. This type of volunteering is part of getting promoted. It is not a civic or cultural act. Corporations use it to appear socially responsible. As a cynic the whole thing feels like a lie on both sides. Is this common over there?

Ethelred The Unsteady said...

That's a very thoughtful post, Paul.

Mrs. E and I are on a volunteer committee, where the ages range from about thirty to seventy, but most of us are at the older end. Retired people do have more spare time, and the young seem to be working ever-longer hours to pay rack-rents or housing bubble debts, but I doubt that this is the only reason. It isn't just the length of hours, but also the "flexibility" (for workers, not for managers, that is) demanded too, which means that they cannot guarantee attending on a given future date, in case a short-notice work commitment should arise.

The iPhone generation also hammer out all sorts, without a physical meeting across the internet, and are perhaps surprised when they find that their corporeal presence might actually be required for some activity? Some even struggle with sending actual greeting cards, I find.

(Incidentally, I'm sorry to have to hide behind a nom-de-plume, but I have a perhaps unusual name, and my devotions in another life have meant that I find it best. All I've done is to speak up in a public arena, on the side of the Rule Of Law and the Sovereignty Of Parliament, against the teeth-grinders and pitchfork-wavers, but it seems that even simply exercising free speech in upholding those most British of institutions is enough to bring you some very unpleasant threats these days.)



(Wir müssen in der Hoffnung leben, ja?)

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Dave. The type of work-based volunteering you describe is not at all common, here in the UK. We do tend to look after our workforce, and there is legislation in place which looks after workers’ rights, and protects people from exploitation. Requiring employees to carry out voluntary work, in order to gain promotion, sounds very much like exploitation to me.

Unlike the US, there is also a minimum wage in force in Britain, which has to be paid to employees. This stops unscrupulous employers paying their workforce a pittance, thereby making them reliant on tips and other gratuities, just to get by.

All this could change of course, if we end up leaving the European Union, but that doesn’t seem to bother the people who are intent on forcing us out, thereby watering down employees’ rights, or even removing them altogether.

Carrying out voluntary work, away from the workplace, either in a civic or charitable type of role, is a different thing altogether, and that is really what my article is all about.

Paul Bailey said...

I can fully appreciate your concerns Ethelred. These days the pitchfork-wavers have the platform of social media by which to wage their attacks, particularly against anyone who deviates, even slightly, from what they consider to be the norm. At times there appears to be a whole army of “keyboard warriors” ready to release their venom against anyone with the audacity to disagree with or even question their views.

I also take your point regarding younger people having to work longer hours, just to get by, and I would agree that many are disadvantaged by having to work unsocial hours, sometimes at short notice. Little wonder they are put off from carrying out voluntary work.

Being too engrossed in the virtual world of social media is not a good thing, and there is a lot of truth in the saying “need to get out more.” Many certainly do, and they need to start interacting with real people in the real world as well.

I shouldn’t say this, but my son is just as guilty; too much time on his computer and not enough out socialising and chasing the girls. He’ll learn one day!

Dave said...

I should clarify that the work volunteering isn't "required", but is "strongly" encouraged. And we all know what that means:)

Matt said...

You're right that the ageing demographic of CAMRA is mirrored across all kinds of voluntary organisations.

I'm a member of Manchester Jazz Society, and at 47 one of the youngest, with most in their sixties, seventies and eighties (partly that's a result of concentrating on the "golden era" of swing, bop, hard/post-bop and free jazz, roughly 1930 to 1970, rather than later forms such as fusion and nu-jazz, that being the period of most members' childhood and youth, but with less appeal to young people).

The trick is not necessarily to attract young people, although obviously that shouldn't be discouraged either, and especially not by trying to appear trendier and "down with the kids" than you actually are, but rather just to find new people of whatever age. There are still thousands of people retiring or being made redundant in their fifties and sixties every year who suddenly have more time on their hands (I was made redundant a decade ago and have only worked sporadically since, which while not financially great means I've been able to do more voluntary stuff, including for CAMRA). The only real problem facing us with that is that while life expectancy generally, and especially amongst the better off, is increasing, so inexorably is the pension age.

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Russtovich said...

"Society today is much more fractured than it was a few generations ago, and people seem so much more wrapped up in their own little bubble."

I'm afraid that's pretty much the case anywhere these days. And being able to just chat online rather than out and about in company doesn't help. I think it's something that will have to play out, one way or another. (sigh)