What makes a society cohesive? And why does it matter?
The OECD characterizes a society cohesive if “it works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalization, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward social mobility.”
Using this definition, it is safe to say that most Canadians aspire to a society that is cohesive and most political promises and platforms are tied in some way to the notion of creating social cohesion or building social capital. In some ways social cohesion is the currency of government. When it is high it lends governments and other public sector institutions the legitimacy and credibility they need to operate. It is also important because you can’t find common ground or a plurality approval on key issues (e.g. climate change or immigration) without it. We also know that having a strong stock of social capital matters to business because without it we see more social and economic disruption (e.g. Black Lives Matter) and at its core the economy functions more efficiently when there is a high level of trust between individuals in a society.
Over the past few months we have been watching the Ipsos Disruption Barometer in Canada fall, then climb, then fall again and have been keeping tabs on an ever-evolving set of social and economic issues to help our clients navigate what has become a challenging 2020. Today, managing the economic and health implications of Covid-19 are at the top of the list of issues that Canadians tell us they are concerned about. This has remained constant since the declaration of a pandemic in March. Since that time the speeches of our political and business leaders and the advertisements reaching us through our screens every day have echoed the message that “we are all in this together”. But are Canadians in this together? Do they feel that their institutions, their businesses and their neighbours are working for the betterment of the country? Is there a cohesive Canadian society from “coast to coast to coast” or from “Gen Z to Boomer”?
At Ipsos we have noticed a lack of consistency across generations when it comes to the top social and economic issues that are worrying Canadians. Currently only two issues (Coronavirus & Unemployment) are viewed as a top priority across generations. As the table below shows, after the top two issues, choosing an issue that all Canadians want to see addressed is a challenge. What is even more difficult is squaring the circle of opinions and expectations concerning a specific issue. The final challenge is how to determine a government agenda or CSR plan when issues like Climate Change, Poverty, Racism, etc. are considered a high priority by only one generation.
We live in a complex world made more complex by Covid-19. Every issue from re-building the economy to back-to-school to addressing climate change requires dialogue and compromise to move forward. The alternative is the perception, if not the reality, of creating winners and losers as public policies and corporate actions aim to tackle our biggest challenges. This is where our togetherness as a country or our social cohesion comes into play. The pandemic was useful on this front as early on it created a common enemy for all Canadians to rally together to defeat. We set aside many differences and accepted the science and facts presented by our health and political authorities and worked together to protect each other. In our data we saw a real “we are in this together” sentiment among Canadians but this has been short lived and started declining almost as fast as it rose.
Even with Canadians’ apparent willingness to work together in the face of Covid-19 our research shows that social cohesion may not be as strong as we assume or hope. Only three in ten Canadians (31%) are identified as “solid” on the Ipsos Social Cohesion Index. An almost equal number (28%) are identified as weak, while a plurality (41%) are considered “soft and wavering”
Our Social Cohesion Index has been built by combining a series of metrics that examine: Canadians’ Social Relations (feelings of trust in others, shared priorities, support for diversity); Canadians’ Connectedness (perceptions of identity, trust in governments/political system, fairness across society) and Canadians’ Commitment to the Common Good (responsibility to help others, respect laws and the absence of systemic corruption).
Across these broad elements our highest scores are for our feelings of Connectedness (37% solid) and at the other end of the spectrum our feelings of working toward the Common Good are lowest at 31%.
There are differences by region, gender and income but given the Covid-19 and its positioning as a once in a life time crisis (or opportunity by some) and the decisions being made by governments and business today that will have implications for years to come the generational differences (see below) are worth noting. These along with what we know are a very different set of issue priorities across generations point to the potential for on-going generational conflict as we re-imagine our economy and society in the post-Covid years.
Without a strong cohesive society with common goals and values we will not find acceptable plurality solutions to our biggest challenges and our economy will be less efficient. Without these connectors we may devolve to a place where the loudest special interest carries the day and where each decision, policy, program, product or service creates winners and losers. If we head too far down this path. a polarized or worse a splintered society becomes a perpetuating reality with every decision pushing us further apart.
But all is not lost. There are some areas where we are strong and where we can find common ground. Most notably our support for ethnic diversity, our respect for our laws and the value we place on our Canadian identity. These areas need continued nurturing, but they are currently the strongest of the elements included in our study and provide us with some building blocks to increase social cohesion in the future. On the flip side we have some work to do when it comes to our trust in governments/the political system to do what is right and our belief that our society is free from corruption.
The Governor of the Bank of Canada noted the need to do more to build trust in our institutions during his recent speech at the Jackson Hole Symposium.
“In a nutshell, we need to spend more effort speaking and listening to the citizens we serve. Diversifying our engagement improves our capacity to make better policy decisions and enhances our legitimacy as public institutions. That is more important now than ever as we grapple with COVID-19 and its harsh economic consequences, which affect everyone. And it will be critical in the future as we tackle the impact of structural changes to our economies arising from the legacy of COVID-19 and those it is amplifying, including digitalization, debt and inequality.” 
Some final thoughts …
Ethical lapses may not topple governments or cause people to boycott companies, but they do have an impact on society. As we lose trust in our institutions and/or increasingly believe that our society and economy are rigged in favour of the elites we increasingly view every social issue and potential solution through a short term lens of “what does this mean for me and my family” without any view toward the common good.
Looking ahead, the pandemic has created some clear winners and losers. In this note we focus on the generational divisions but there are others. Region vs. region; big business at the expense of small business; homeowners at the expense of renters; public servants at the expense of private sector workers; higher income professionals at the expense of everybody else, etc. We see more divisive debates on the horizon as decisions about the long-term future of the country are made, especially around issues like climate change, the digitization of social and economic activities and government spending/debt management.
Over the coming months we plan to track our Social Cohesion Index. We will look at how it measures up against other countries but most importantly we’ll examine the shifts in Canada and the impact of key public and private sector activities to determine which have the potential to knit Canadians together vs. those that may lead to splitting us further apart.
1] OECD 2011, “Perspectives on Global Development 2012—Social Cohesion in a Shifting World”
 Remarks by Tiff Macklem Governor of the Bank of Canada Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Jackson Hole Symposium August 27, 2020
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