Though they have different histories and cultures, Mexico and the UK are facing a surprising number of similar problems when it comes to social isolation and older people. Dionisio Garcia lays out the case for a Circle Movement in Mexico.
By Dionisio Garcia, Bitacora Social
Back in December 2009, while vacationing in London, I read an editorial from Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian that talked about loneliness during Christmas time. In it he referred to how “a remarkable experiment is getting people visiting one another again, and its radical lessons could boost public service”. They mentioned the Get Together group, which led to starting the original Circle. I thought it was a superb concept, so much so that I contacted one of the founders a few days after. I was then convinced that their principles could very well work in less developed countries such as Mexico. At the time I was working for PepsiCo in Latin America with very limited time to invest in such an initiative. I took early retirement in mid-2013. Now I had the time to re-explore what had ignited a passion to work in different ways to contribute to a better society.
I had the opportunity to visit the Participle offices in April while vacationing in the UK. Much progress had been made and they have expanded beyond the original “Circle” with even more interesting concepts. Now in a more serious way I thought about the applicability of these concepts for Mexico and on what would be the best approach to implementing it.
Would such a traditionally young country in a Latin/warm culture need a Circle? Were we experiencing similar conditions of public services such as those of the UK? After some analyses I concluded that the Participle principles and approaches could work almost “as-is” in Mexico.
- Demographic change: Mexico continues to be a relatively young country if measured by the average age of their inhabitants – just over 26 years. However, in little over 20 years it has moved from an average of 18 years and will soon approach the 30+. It is no longer a country of kids. In fact, the average number of kids in married couples is a little over 2 and will soon be even lower. Marriage is now common at 30+ years and parenthood closer to 40. The traditional big families and support groups are rapidly diminishing.
- Urbanisation: More than 25% of the population lives in Mexico City and most of the country inhabitants have left the small/country towns to move to big urban centres. This means long commute times because of the traffic and ineffective public transport. It is common for office and factory personnel to commute 2.5 to 4 hours a day! There is not much time left before or after work for socialising or supporting extended family members. Some others have moved to other big cities in search of better opportunities, breaking the long standing big-family weekly reunions.
- Struggling services: Public services are poor, limited or ineffective. The two biggest groups (IMSS and ISSSTE) struggle regularly with resources and have limited capability to deal with the ever-growing obesity related issues of the country. Mexico being now the #1 country in the world for obesity for adults, women and children. It is a system that will become bankrupt if a different solution is not found in the next years. It is a service-based system with no involvement of the population. Little has been done to effectively impact any of these.
- Shifting views of the Third Age and employment: Old age is under re-definition from an employability point of view. Government employees retire after 25 or 30 years of service and private companies re-structure regularly taking out “old employees” at 50 or 55. Retirees or people older than 45 seldom find rewarding jobs. There is now a big group of 50+ year olds that are un/under employed. This trend impoverishes the population, is ineffective in leveraging work force experience and put a lot of social and emotional pressures to people and their families. More than 90% of the country have income levels below the poverty line, as defined for the US, limiting funds to invest in fulfilling activities and loneliness is now a factor for many in old age.
I see many principles and concepts that could be of great help for the above situation in Mexico. The three-tiered (Individual, Community and Government) approach is key to redefine involvement and boost self-reliance. The relationship approach to services is quite interesting as the socio-emotional level is seldom addressed in delivering services. There are many studies that demonstrate that involved individuals who maintain healthy relationships are healthier, happier and live longer. Additionally, the concept of creating or developing capabilities in old age (or at any age) turns out to be more economical for public services.
At the end, it represents a good business proposition to governments. Mexico needs Circles and Wellograms to help reverse current trends in society and evolve the way public services are delivered. There are challenges with such a degree of inequality in society as well as with the long-standing crime and corruption in the country. However, there are ways to start in limited areas and demonstrate the viability of a great approach in ways to make it attractive to individuals, communities and governments. We have much to gain as the current trends will make the country unviable in the next 10-15 years if we keep on the way we are now.
It is our responsibility to help build a better society. The Participle principles and approaches represent a great way to start.
Dionisio Garcia is currently working on his own company Bitacora Social, an ethnographic and anthropological research company (which he owns with his young brother) that looks at wellbeing, companies and society in general to help reverse the very damaging obesity and social isolation trends in the Latin America region.
Image by Geraint Rowland, via Flickr Creative Commons.