Volunteering: Boomers, Gen X'ers, and Millenials

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

I want to talk about volunteerism. It is, of course, the glue that holds things together in our society. Things that the government can't or won't do - things for which there is no private sector motivation.

Personally, I've spent a lot of years trying to get Gen X'ers to get involved in politics, in their communities (through X-PAC, now sadly in "hibernation".) We always figured that it was our generation, the media-dubbed 'slacker' generation, that needed help getting up off the couch to do something.

Now, here comes news that it's the Boomers that got a problem. Turns out, according to a Harvard study, that "boomers have done less by every measure of civic engagement, including rates of voting and joining community groups." The study worries that since so much community work is done by volunteers from the 'Greatest Generation,' we'll see a massive slackening in society when Boomers hit retirement stage...

"Given that boomers have been far less civically engaged than the Greatest Generation at every stage to date, it is not clear to what extent they will fill their parents' shoes through volunteer activity in their retirement years."

Thanks to Oregon Volunteers (the folks who bring you Americorps in Oregon) for the pointer to the Harvard study.

Of course, there's hope. This new generation of kids, BlueBlogger Andrew Simon and his cohorts, that's been dubbed the Millenial Generation. (Don't call 'em Generation Y, unless you wanna get smacked.) They're the kids who graduate from high school in the year 2000 and beyond. (That's right, the first Millenials just graduated from college.)

From Millennials Rising (a book everyone should read)...

"Yes, there’s a revolution under way among today’s kids—a good news revolution. This generation is going to rebel by behaving not worse, but better. Their life mission will not be to tear down old institutions that don’t work, but to build up new ones that do. Look closely at youth indicators, and you’ll see that Millennial attitudes and behaviors represent a sharp break from Generation X, and are running exactly counter to trends launched by the Boomers."

Doubt it? Don't. Just ask Howard Dean - about a quarter of his donors were under age 30, and there were twice as many Generation Dean chapters as College Democrat chapters. The organizations that will be successful will be ones, like the Bus Project, that engage them with new ideas and new ways of doing things.

History has tapped them to be the inheritors of the mantle of the upbeat, team-playing, World War II-winning G.I.s . If the rhythms of history continue, Millennials will not be culture creators to the same degree as Boomers, nor entrepreneurs to the extent of Gen Xers. Instead, they will be a generation capable of rebuilding powerful political and economic institutions and re-energizing a sense of community and public purpose. Depending on the course of events, Millennials are poised to define the twenty-first century in much the same way as the G.I.s defined the twentieth. (Millennials Rising)

Look out, Oregon. Here come the Millennials.

  • Isaac Laquedem (unverified)

    Something like this was the thesis of a book called Bowling Alone that was published maybe 6 or 8 years ago: our communities fray because we don't have, or don't allocate, the time to do things with others in organized groups. The symptom that set the author off was noticing that bowling alleys were setting aside fewer nights for league play, because fewer people were in bowling leagues and more were bowling alone.

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    All the generation-related books by the authors of Millennials Rising are must-reads. Actually, that's the only one of theirs I haven't yet read. Their entire cyclical generational-types thesis is very, very compelling.

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    Isaac, well actually, the thesis of Bowling Alone is that social bonds are breaking apart - and while Robert Putnam's analysis blames the Boomers in substantial ways, I don't believe he sees light at the end of the tunnel with respect to the Millennials.

    b!X - I absolutely agree. All the books by Howe and Strauss are worth reading - especially 'Generations', their most academic and least pop-psych text.

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    Yes, 'Generation' is a phenomenal book, and frankly I'm not sure how clear their thesis can be without having read that one. It's rather striking. It suddeny occurs to me that I may have once talked to one of them on the phone years ago, possibly because of some generations-related newspaper commentary I was trying to write. Hrm. That would have to be well over a decade ago, I think.

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    I can offer anecdotal evidence from my experience as the volunteer coordinator (for four more weeks!) at the Oregon Historical Society. The vast majority of our volunteers are past retirement age, and women are far more likely to be volunteers than men. The second largest group of volunteers are college students and recent graduates, and here there are about equal numbers of women and men. Very few people between ages 30-50 donate their time on a regular basis.

    There are obvious demographic reasons for some of these trends. Retirees and students are more likely to have flexible schedules that enable them to volunteer during daytime, weekday hours. Folks in the 30-50 age range are more likely to be raising children and at key points in their careers. If one wants to encourage volunteerism among people in this age range, it is important to develop volunteer programs that take their schedules and the demands on their time into account. Evening/weekend opportunities, childcare availability, and the willingness to integrate children into volunteer activities where possible are all things to keep in mind.

    Another thing to bear in mind is that volunteers bring different motivations to their volunteer work. Among the younger volunteers I've worked with, two motivations prevail: the genuine desire to "give back," fostered by high school and college programs that encourage community service; and the desire to gain skills and experience that will help them improve their job prospects in Oregon's dismal employment market.

    The retired volunteers I work with also have a strong desire to "give back," based on an older tradition of community responsibility. These volunteers are also motivated by the desire to continue to learn and grow, to share their expertise with others, and to have social opportunities that get them "out of the house."

    My two years as a volunteer coordinator have been inspiring. I've had the chance to see first-hand the quiet work that volunteers do every day with no fanfare or press. So far this year, volunteer hours at OHS are equivalent to 5.5 full-time employees. When the Society re-opened its doors after renovation in September 2003 and hosted the Declaration of Independence, over 150 people donated their time to help us welcome nearly 25,000 people in 11 days.

    And then there are the individual stories. The many folks who have volunteered at the Society for more than 20 years--longer than most of us will hold a single paying job. One woman began volunteering with the Society in the Junior League--36 years ago--and has stayed with it ever since.

    There are also people like John and Heidi. John is a 40-something father of two who runs a carpet cleaning business. He arranges his schedule so that, twice a month, he and his 14-year old daughter Heidi can volunteer as tour guides--in the morning at the Chinese Garden and in the afternoon at the Society. They bike to their nearest MAX station, come downtown, and bike again, because the family is committed to reducing its dependence on automobiles. Their docent activities are part of Heidi's home schooling and watching the two of them work with school groups in our exhibits is as inspiring a sight as any I've seen.

    Organizations like mine could not continue without the support of a cadre of committed volunteers, and it is important to find new ways of encouraging volunteerism if non-profits are to continue in the years ahead. Service-learning initiatives in schools are making a big impact. Volunteering as a means of job training is an under-explored way of attracting low-income populations to volunteering. Some corporations are experimenting with employee volunteer programs (though there are far too few of these). We need creative approaches to encouraging volunteerism and we need them now. Our arts and culture institutions, our political process, and the non-profit social services agencies that are struggling to maintain a social safety net, depend on it.

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    There seemed to be a fair number of younger volunteers for the Declaration of Independence event (I did a few days manning the touch-screen voting machine display).

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    For which you earned my undying gratitude! :)

  • pdxkona (unverified)

    Perhaps included in this equation is the fact that average American workweek hours have continuously been rising; I think it's nearing 60 hours per week now.

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