Who Are the Next Generation of Volunteers?


Boomers are starting to retire. By 2020, in less than a decade, the number of boomers in the workforce will have decreased by 50%. What is hoped, by service and volunteer organizations, is that this will increase the number of boomers looking to volunteer their time and services to the various volunteer and service organizations needing their resources. However, the challenge for leaders of volunteer organizations is not just attracting more volunteers and encouraging them to donate more of their time to voluntary tasks, but, to attract and retain boomers, these organizations will need to provide the right type of volunteer opportunity. For Boomers, the right type of opportunity is one that encourages them to utilize the skills, knowledge and experience they have spent their entire working lives to acquire.

At the same time, leaders of these organizations will be seeking ways and means to attract and retain members of the succeeding generations, Generation X and Y, to build the volunteer base for the future.

According to Statistics Canada, our population is aging and we have more people in the 45 to 55 age group that we have in the 25 to 35 age group. The birth rate in Canada (and all other Western nations) has slowed considerably and the average age of Canadians today is 39 years of age versus 26 in 1971. This will affect our health and social systems but it will also affect our organizations – both inside and outside the workplace. Predictions, by social scientists, of a decline in the expertise available, particularly at the management and senior levels of organizations, may well be the same for volunteer organizations Ryan Van Wagenen. On the UticaOD.com website, in April of this year, they noted that “… the percentage of baby boomers volunteering (in the U.S.)…is on the decline… nearly 22 million boomers gave their time in communities across the country in 2010 – that’s about 28.8 percent of boomers, down slightly from 29.9 percent in 2007 and from 33.5 percent in 2003.”

In terms of the workforce environment, intergenerational influences that affect both its composition and operation. There are four distinct generations in the workforce – and a significant shift is underway reaching its peak by the year 2020. This shift will occur due to the exit of Boomers and their replacement by Generation Y. Today, 40% of senior positions are held by Boomers. They lead the companies and the country – they hold a significant amount of expertise and, they have the corporate volunteer networks in place. Generation X and Y have entered the workforce and they have arrived with different preferences, working styles, and views of work, workplace environment and how they should be treated as employees. Recent studies with small business owners, those employing less than 100 employees, representing the majority of employers in Canada, have found that less than 25% of them have a succession plan in place – a means to pass on their business and expertise.

This intergenerational workplace has significant implications for the development of future volunteer activity. Boomers still dominate, not only the workforce in general, but also the senior positions in most organizations, including volunteer organizations. As Boomers retire, they will be replaced by a much younger group – Generation Y – with potentially very different views of the volunteer role and activities. Boomers should be accountable to mentor, coach, and develop the next generation of volunteers. What will be their legacy in this area? What will ensure Boomers, themselves, continue to give back, in the traditional sense as volunteers, by donating their free time (at retirement) to volunteer organizations?

Assuming that participation in the volunteer community will mirror participation in the workforce, by 2020, the percentage of Boomers will actually decline, along with a decline in the numbers of Generation X participating in volunteer activity.

Estimates gathered from Statistics Canada surveys in 2010 show that of the 2.1 billion volunteer hours expended during that year, approximately 36% of these hours were expended by Boomers. Generation X contributed 29% of this total, and Traditionalists (those aged 65+) and Generation Y each contributed 18% and 17%, respectively. So what might be the effect of these demographic changes on our volunteer organizations, our service clubs, organizations that rely on volunteers to achieve their goals and deliver on their community purpose? If we apply the workplace demographic changes to the volunteer community, the decline in Boomer activity will be significant, dropping to 18%. Generation X will also decline slightly and Generation Y will increase, but not enough to offset the effect of the Boomer cohort.

There are some attributes generally considered to be preferential when recruiting volunteers. Organizations seek educated, financially sound, employed, healthy, geographically stable members. They look for those with a positive and active lifestyle, focused on others, who feel a sense of duty and obligation to others, and have free time which they will allot to volunteering activities. Boomers generally fit this profile with a couple of qualifications.

Although Boomers are considered to be in good financial shape, they are now spending money and time on boomerang children and aging parents (average age of boomer parents is increasing requiring more support for longer periods of time). Boomers are highly educated and are focused on continuing to pursue an active and healthy lifestyle and they are relatively stable geographically as they tend to cluster in metropolitan areas (these characteristics summarized from studies and reports completed by the American Association for Retired Persons and Harvard School of Public Health). But some challenges arise when assessing boomers’ penchant for volunteer work. Boomers’ life experience has been one of self-indulgence, independence, and self-reliance. They are primarily focused on themselves and their own social networks, and are most likely to expend any additional free time (during retirement) on their own pleasures.

Boomers will most likely remain in the workforce longer than originally anticipated so will most likely continue to contribute time and effort to those causes they feel most passionate about and that afford them this time during working hours. However, once they retire, this is predicted to change. Contrary to conventional wisdom, more people volunteer in mid-life than in retirement. Volunteerism peaks in mid-life and then gradually declines (Harvard School of Public Health, 2003). Boomers will leave a large gap – to be filled by the next dominant group – Generation Y. But there are less of them. This volunteer gap could have significant implications for those organizations reliant on volunteers. How will volunteer organizations deal with this loss of labour and, more importantly, expertise in providing services to their communities?

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