We need new civic institutions to confront the challenges of the 21st century

Online groups like Mumsnet can fill the void left by declining trade unions, social clubs and political parties, says Thomas Neumark.

If I could change one thing it would be to try and figure out how we can support the development of new institutions so that people can come together to confront the major challenges that the world faces in the 21st century.

So many of the institutions that brought people together and brought about the major advancements of the last 60 years are dead or dying. Trade union membership in the private sector is a fraction of what it once was, almost no one is a member of a political party any more, and we are even seeing the decline of the Great British pub.

For many people these institutions simply do not seem relevant – rather they are a barely-understood relic of a bygone age. They do not fit in with the logic of people’s lives, with the structure of their work, their leisure or their family life.

Of course there are those who are trying to reactivate these old institutions, attempting to galvanise them and make them seem fresh again. The Living Wage campaigns and Labour’s support for community organisers have shown flashes of innovative approaches that hold out the possibility of renewal. Perhaps there is a cause for hope here, but perhaps the conservative elements in these institutions will prevail, as they have by and large so far, and fight for the interests of their current members rather than looking outwards.

At the same time we are seeing glimpses of what a 21st century civic institution might look like. Mumsnet is perhaps the most noticeable example. The popular website has not only brought support to scores of parents and soon-to-be parents, but it has also been able to leverage this popularity to discreetly and not so discreetly lobby government on a number of issues such as the regulation of childcare. The success of Mumsnet shows that it is still possible to create institutions, even in our increasingly atomised society, that bring people together and press for progressive reforms.

Older generations of community development workers and community organisers often focused their efforts on establishing tenants or community associations. Speak to any of them now and they will tell you stories of poorly-attended meetings in which people argue ineffectually over minutes and constitutions.

To confront the challenges of the 21st century – be it an ageing population, climate change, informal discrimination or income inequality – we need new institutions to join the fight.

We need a far better understanding of how we can collectively support the development of these new institutions to take the place that was once occupied by trade unions, political parties, social clubs, tenants’ associations – the list goes on.

Thomas attended JRF Sessions – a workshop in which younger people shared ideas to help JRF and JRHT shape their 10-year vision – and attendees were asked to write a blog about one thing they would change to reduce poverty. Thomas’s is one of two winning entries.