Economic crises threaten solidarity

Politics and administration

Education strengthens commitment

The financial crisis of 2008 brought financial hardship to a lot of people in Europe. This has consequences for solidarity within societies. Researchers from the Universities of Bern and Lausanne showed that financial hardship can put paid to voluntary work.


The subject of how economic crises affect solidarity within society has long since been of interest in research. It has become clear that the link between financial hardship and social interaction is more complex than previous studies had assumed. This is why Markus Freitag, Professor at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Bern, and Pirmin Bundi, assistant professor at the University of Lausanne, analyzed voluntary commitment in 27 European countries in an empirical comparative study. Volunteering / voluntary commitment refers to the principle of people volunteering time, money and energy of their own volition, and largely unpaid, to work for other people and organizations. In doing so, they make a contribution to social capital.

Financial hardship undermines commitment

The result: Financial hardship puts paid to voluntary commitment. This could well be related to the fact that, on the one hand, citizens are less likely to volunteer when faced with financial hardship themselves due to limited resources such as time, money and capabilities. And on the other, in economically difficult times people feel financially insecure and work harder to protect their own job – to the detriment of social commitment.

Did you know?

"Holland is top of the list in Europe when it comes to voluntary work: Around 60 percent of the population does some form of voluntary work. In Switzerland, between 25 and 30 percent of the population do voluntary work in clubs and associations, organizations and authorities."

Education mitigates the negative effect

The study also reveals that the extent to which volunteering declines in times of crisis has something to do with the level of education: Although well educated citizens can get into financial difficulties, they want to continue their voluntary commitments because they are motivated by norms of the common good as well as altruistic motives, not by any expectations of future rewards. Generally speaking, the individual level of education plays an important role in volunteering: It raises the awareness of social problems and the importance of civic commitment. "Education makes us more motivated to volunteer for value-based reasons," explains Markus Freitag.

Education is essential for the creation of social capital

Conversely that means: "Volunteers feel more insecure in a period of financial difficulties the lower their level of education is," explains Pirmin Bundi. So investments in the education system should be of long-term benefit for a country to retain the balance of social interaction in difficult economic times. The authors underscore the importance of this, explaining that the education sector is often required to tighten its belt in difficult economic times.

Freiwilligenarbeit und finanzielle Notlage
The link between economic hardship and voluntary work in Europe: The figure shows that in countries with fewer voluntary workers, citizens often experience economic hardship. For example in Bulgaria and Greece, where only around 10% of the population is involved in any form of voluntary work, almost 80% of those taking part in the survey said they had difficulty paying their bills at the end of the month. Country codes AT Austria BE Belgium BG Bulgaria CY Cyprus CZ Czech Republic DE Germany DK Denmark EE Estonia ES Spain FI Finland FR France GB Great Britain GR Greece HU Hungary IE Ireland IT Italy LT Lithuania LU Luxembourg LV Latvia MT Malta NL Netherlands PL Poland PT Portugal RO Romania SE Sweden SI Slovenia SK Slovakia (© Universität Bern)