From Buttigieg to Macron, why is national service trending?

From Buttigieg to Macron, why is national service trending?

Sarah Mills

This month another country and election campaign debated the merits of ‘national service’ for young people. Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg made ‘a new call for service’ at a recent rally in Iowa, launching his plan for a voluntary scheme to foster an expectation of volunteerism among young people in the United States. His announcement is the latest chapter of a wider national service and youth volunteering story, which deserves closer attention.

Last month, Emmanuel Macron launched his new national civic service pilot in France, an election promise now fulfilled yet already facing criticism. June also saw an unexpected social media debate about national service in the UK after Prime Minister hopeful Rory Stewart’s rapid rise to fame included a pledge for a compulsory National Citizen Service. This would have extended the existing non-military scheme ‘NCS’ – launched by David Cameron in 2011 – which currently runs in England and Northern Ireland and has reached over half a million 15-17 year olds through its voluntary short-term skills programme.

Both Stewart and Macron’s election pledges were rooted in the idea of compulsory volunteering – a complete oxymoron. Indeed, forced volunteering is not volunteering. However, Buttigieg’s new vision is voluntary. His plan is to extend schemes such as AmeriCorps to ensure 1 million American teenagers engage in service by 2026, helping to repair the ‘national social fabric’.

His new vision is also connected to timely youth-focused topics and activism, with his plan for new ‘Corps’ including ‘Climate Corps’ and another based around community and mental health. As an optional year of paid service before work or college, Buttigieg’s scheme reveals another oxymoron in this debate – paid volunteering. The current Mayor of South Bend, Indiana also revealed that his national service plan would include incentives for participation, with time served resulting in student debt relief.

This flurry of recent interest in national service ‘type’ schemes in the US, France and UK raises wider questions about young people’s geopolitics and definitions of volunteering. The recent findings from an ESRC project I led on National Citizen Service in England and Northern Ireland focused on the UK Government’s motivations for their scheme as well as the experiences of teenagers on-the-ground. The research identified a new ‘brand’ of youth citizenship that NCS promotes, one centred on ‘social action’, but that is still connected to national service through its name and some of its original vision.

In interviews with key ‘architects’ of NCS, they explained that national service was echoed in the scheme’s name to evoke the idea of a common shared experience that transcended social class. It is clear from our analysis that central figures in the Conservative Party were trying to create a new national institution built around social mixing, but that this vision became blurred by a range of policy ‘hooks’ in the run-up to the 2010 General Election and beyond. In early working groups, NCS was seen as a ‘service to the citizen’, whereby the reciprocal ‘gift’ to the young citizen for their voluntary activities was the opportunity to create networks and increase social mobility during the transition to adulthood. Our full paper examines these ideas and traces the evolution of NCS from David Cameron’s Big Society towards Theresa May’s short-lived ‘Shared Society’ and the scheme’s now established place in the youth work landscape.

When reflecting on why ideas of national service are currently having a renaissance in public policy, it is important to take a step back. There have been periodic calls for the ‘return’ of national service in the UK since the end of military conscription in the early 1960s. This nostalgic debate is often rehearsed during a time of national crisis, usually with reference to youth crime, social cohesion, or low levels of political and democratic participation. The timing of this cyclical debate also tends to reflect the current political mood, often as a response to what young people are seen to ‘need’ and what the nation feels it needs from its future citizenry. This intergenerational tussle over national service therefore sparks strong opinions, for example from those in favour or against Rory Stewart’s recent plan to make NCS compulsory in the UK.

It is also important to remember that many countries around the world still have compulsory military national service. There are some well-known examples of conscription such as North Korea and China, but readers may be surprised that countries as diverse as Norway, Greece, Singapore, Austria and Finland have age-based and in most cases gender-based forms of military conscription. The latest champions of new or rebranded voluntary service programmes such as Pete Buttigieg in the US are at pains to stress that their schemes are non-military. However, there will always be these echoes of militarism in any new scheme for as long as their names continue to include the words ‘national service’ or talk of ‘corps’, ‘enrolling’ or ‘recruits’.

The focus of Buttigieg’s new plan on climate change, mental health and student debt relief is likely to generate interest with voters throughout his campaign. Senator Elizabeth Warren has also outlined her plan for a modern ‘civilian conservation corps’ for America’s national parks, with service learning on environmental themes also featuring in John Delaney and Seth Moulton’s election drives. Beyond the US presidential race for 2020 though, debates on national service and the politics of youth volunteering across the globe will continue to reveal the deeper hopes and fears of individual nation-states and their respective visions for the future citizens and society they seek to mould.

Sarah Mills is a Reader in Human Geography at Loughborough University. Her research focuses on the geographies of youth citizenship, informal education and volunteering in both contemporary and historical contexts. The above post draws on research supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/L009315/1).