Should civic service be compulsory for all young adults?

A civic service for all young adults is an excellent idea. But can it achieve its purposes if it is voluntary? And is it conceivable to make it compulsory? A mixed scheme is what we should go for.

Should civic service be compulsory for all young adults?
Less than 1% of those eligible currently participate in Belgium’s voluntary "service citoyen".

Even now that war is raging again in Europe, no one in Belgium is proposing to reintroduce a compulsory military service. But some would like to institute a compulsory civic service. Is this desirable and is it feasible?

I like the idea of a civic service for all young adults because of three effects it can be expected to produce. Firstly, on social cohesion. Our societies are very heterogeneous and segregated, in both the physical and the digital space. If intelligently designed, a civic service would make young people interact more than superficially across regional, religious, ethnic and class cleavages.

Secondly, on citizens’ awareness of the challenges facing society. Many of us have only a very abstract knowledge of social distress and environmental threats. If intelligently designed, a civic service would help citizens perceive more tangibly not only the nature and size of the problems, but also the limits of what public authorities can do to address them and the resulting need for bottom-up individual and collective initiatives.

Thirdly, on the integration of newcomers. It is not easy for freshly arrived foreigners to meet “natives”, participate in the same activities or spontaneously practice the local language(s). If designed in such a way that it includes newcomers who intend to stay, a civic service can facilitate their integration in their new home country and even the development of lasting friendships with “natives” far more effectively than the current parcours d’intégration reserved for (some of) them.

If a civic service can serve these various useful purposes, it would obviously be best if as many people as possible in the target population participate, rather than less than 1% in each cohort as is the case with Belgium’s current voluntary service citoyen. Making it obligatory is the most straightforward way of swelling participation and of making sure that those who would most benefit from it are included.

However, it faces serious challenges. Firstly, there cannot be an obligation to participate without a sanction for those who refuse to comply. What could this be? Surely not incarceration in already overcrowded prisons. Nor the so-called peine alternative of community service, which would bizarrely amount to imposing on people the kind of task they are punished for having refused. The only real option left is a fine significant enough to make most people comply. Not an option one should feel comfortable with, as it would amount to enabling the rich to buy themselves out of a civic obligation at no perceptible cost to themselves.

Secondly, a compulsory civic service is expensive. It must be long enough to produce the intended effects — say, six months to a year — and participants must receive enough money to survive — hence rather the 600 euros of France’s voluntary service civique than the 400 euros of Belgium’s service citoyen. This explicit cost is only a fraction of the total cost. There is also the cost of administering the scheme, of chasing the reluctant or uninformed, of providing adequate training, supervision and accommodation. And there is, least visible but even more important, the opportunity cost. A service of several months could not be fitted into holidays. It would therefore involve the loss of valuable contributions to the country’s economic life, especially by those whose skills are in short supply.

Finally, there is the tricky issue of competition with “real jobs”, to which labour unions are understandably very sensitive. For the service to be meaningful, the tasks involved must be useful. But if they are not to reduce the volume of paid employment, they must not be so useful that private or public employers would have reason to hire someone to perform them. Finding enough of these tasks may not be hopeless when less than 1% of each cohort is involved, but the higher the percentage, the less realistic the prospect.

The combination of these obstacles rules out a compulsory civic service of substantial length for all young adults within the foreseeable future, but not necessarily a two-tier scheme of the following sort. Such a scheme could involve a compulsory minimum of, say, two weeks for everyone, with the possibility of being called back within the next few years should support suddenly be needed, typically in the event of a pandemic, a hurricane or a flood. Those not showing up for the minimum service would be liable to a fine. But this could work in the same way as Belgium’s compulsory voting system: the fine is never charged, but the rate of compliance is around 90%.

It is crucial, however, that people should also be able to sign up for a longer period, say six months or a year. It is only this longer service that could hope to have the various positive effects mentioned above. Coupling it with a shorter compulsory service should help guarantee that those who would most benefit from it will be effectively reached. And the fact that the substantial second tier is voluntary also has its own advantages. For example, this is what can make it an instrument for reducing prejudices: recent research in Flanders has shown that young people of foreign origin have a higher chance of being hired if their CVs include volunteering. More generally, contrary to a compulsory service, a voluntary one can be framed as a gift rather than a chore. It can therefore enjoy the warm glow of an altruistic experience, which matters both for the motivation of those involved and for the perception by the rest of society.

Therefore, this dual scheme offers, it seems to me, the most promising way forward.

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