Social capital is about agency, connections and influence – good things in life that don’t directly relate to how big your bank account is. I’m a big believer in social capital since you don’t need to be extraordinarily wealthy or famous to have oodles of it, but you do need to be smart and generous in how you navigate social situations. You can be rich in social capital even if your savings account is a little light. It’s about being scrupulous in staying on good terms with the people around you. Social capital is all about your interactions with others, how meaningful they are, how often you connect and how wide or influential your social network is.
When I was teaching adult newcomers to Canada, most of who were highly educated (and before immigrating held prestigious jobs in their home countries), their biggest hurdle was the astonishing drop in social capital they experienced when they came to Canada. No one here much cared about their university degrees, or their former achievements.
Their main goal, apart from settling their families in a safe and peaceful country, was to try to regain even a little of the social capital they’d lost immigrating to Canada. Building social capital isn’t easy; it takes time and endurance. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to your network of friends, family and acquaintances, especially once you have retired.
This is not only true for those who have immigrated to Canada, but also for all retirees in Canada. When you retire, you lose the social status of a job, that regular pay cheque, and the social and emotional benefits that revolve around work. How that affects the health and collective well-being of older adults was investigated by the National Institute on Ageing (NIA). The report, Toronto Social Capital Study, researched by the Environics Institute, is the first to study levels of social participation, trust and engagement in Toronto.
As described by the NIA, “Social capital is critical to a good quality of life, a healthy population, safe streets, and economic prosperity. Ensuring that older adults are experiencing strong levels of social capital is particularly important to combating social isolation and promoting healthy ageing.”
The good news is that the report finds that “older adults exhibit among the highest levels of social capital of those surveyed. Older Torontonians were more likely to have a close friend in their neighbourhood. These findings hold true for older adults who live alone or in high-rise buildings.”
The findings also conclude that, “while loneliness and isolation are challenges for many older adults across the city as a whole, residents aged 65 and over living alone and/or in high-rise buildings are among the most satisfied with the frequency of contact with family and friends. This group is more likely than others to say they are very satisfied with the frequency of contact with family and friends, with very few (3% among all residents aged 65 plus) expressing dissatisfaction.”
At the same time, the report shows that there are significant challenges to maintaining this high level of satisfaction. One is the fast-growing and ageing population and an increasing division between high and low-income neighbourhoods. Along with social connections, a key aspect of social capital is the extent to which people form social connections who are different from themselves. The report refers to this as “bridging capital,” and explores how Torontonians are often “sticking with their own versus making connections across ethnic and other boundaries.”
It appears that younger people have more connections with those from a visibly different ethnic group, while older adults are more prone to stick to themselves. According to the report, it’s all about trust. Do Torontonians know and trust their neighbours? Do different ethnic groups trust each other? How important is income in building trust?
For retired adults, those who tend to spend more time at home than anywhere else, the trust they place in their neighbours, community, and the institutions that support them, is key to maintaining social capital.
If you are considering moving after age 60, it’s not just about the size of your house, or the pressure of mortgage payments, if you happen to carry some debt. Whenever I think about selling our house to be mortgage free, I try to paint the entire picture of our lives in my mind. Is it more important to be completely mortgage free or to enjoy life in the comfort of my home with the pleasures of a friendly, compassionate and familiar neighbourhood?
Moving neighbourhoods or even from city to city isn’t nearly as taxing as moving from one country to another as my international students were forced to do. I can never understand those advertisements aimed at retirees that promote “living for less” in the warm climate of another country. Essentially, who cares? It’s not the temperature that counts nearly as much as the degree of social capital you build, nurture and cherish. It’s all about being a decent human being and about the trust you extend to others who are most likely depending on the same well-meaning interactions you are.