Australia today faces a community crisis. Australians are less likely to join community organisations, to know our friends and neighbours, to attend a religious service, to play sport or even to participate in a government survey. On average, Australians are more socially isolated, less engaged in a common civic community and more disconnected than ever before. The mental wellbeing of young Australians, especially girls, has worsened considerably since the iPhone was launched in 2007.
Yet across the country, there are social entrepreneurs who are bucking the trend. On Saturday mornings, parkrun brings thousands together to share in the common pleasure of a five-kilometre run. Kids Giving Back aims to build a culture of philanthropy in the next generation. On the streets, Orange Sky Australia uses a mobile laundromat to facilitate connecting conversations. In the spiritual realm, evangelical Bible study groups and Muslim conversation groups continue to grow. In an era when many feel overwhelmed by social media, tools like Screen Time and techniques like digital sabbaticals are helping reclaim real life from devices.
When the coronavirus lockdown began, much of the community activity was spontaneous. Neighbourhoods organised local groups at a street and suburb level to support people who are elderly or socially isolated by offering to do their shopping, walk their dog or just check in with a regular phone call. Schools organised students to write thank you notes to doctors and nurses, and letters to nursing homes where residents might be feeling lonely.
The emergence of mutual aid groups marked a sense of common purpose. A survey in April 2020 found that while Australians felt more confused, bored, angry, lonely, anxious and fearful during the lockdown, they were also more likely to feel a sense of solidarity. Another study found that people were more likely to regard other Australians as trustworthy in April than they had been in February.
The first half of 2020 was a time of uncertainty and disruption; a reminder of how debilitating isolation and loneliness can be. At the same time, spontaneous surges of care and support spread out across our networks of weak ties. Australians evidently have a healthy appetite, and plenty of energy, for the work of reconnecting. The Kindness Pandemic, Play for Lives, informal support groups, and fill-in volunteering are examples that remind us of the altruism and community talents that Australia can draw upon to become a more connected nation. But it won’t happen by accident, and no one wants to rely on a deadly virus as a way of building community. Instead, a reconnected Australia requires blending enthusiasm and innovation to create institutions and cultures that foster community connections.
Whether you’re a volunteer or a donor, a policymaker or a charity leader, each of us has a part to play in Australia’s civic renaissance.