By Steve Trader
The largest generation of Americans ever born are about to have a lot of free time on their hands, and the volunteer industry is primed to take advantage of it. The only problem is that, so far, they haven’t shown up.
Only one in four Americans aged 65 and older volunteered in 2013, according to an economic report on volunteerism by the Bureau of Labor Statistics released in February. The volunteer rate of the newly-retired baby boomers is one of the smallest rates of any age group. Though one in four people is still a respectable number of volunteers, getting older individuals to contribute hasn’t been easy.
“We get fewer volunteers with professional skills, those are likely to be retired people, and those are the folks that we could really use,” said Kristina Reintamm, the outreach and engagement manager for Brooklyn Community Services. “It’s definitely been a challenge finding people.”
By the year 2022, 26 percent of the labor force population will be comprised of adults aged 55 years and older. The oldest of the baby boomers began hitting retirement age in 2011, and in 2030, the population of retired-aged workers will have doubled to almost 72 million.
The baby boomers are highly educated, at least compared to the generation before them, and many of them are employed, which makes them quality volunteer prospects. And in their younger years, boomers spent more time volunteering than any other group.
In 2002, when the majority of boomers were between the ages of 35 and 54, they volunteered at a rate of about 33 percent, according to a BLS report. The volunteer rate for that same age range in 2013 was just over 29 percent.
But harsh economic times have had a significant impact on the boomers’ retirement plans. A report published by the AARP in 2011 indicated that 26 percent of individuals aged 46-64 had no personal savings. One of every four people of the same age reported having no retirement savings either.
“There is a correlation between volunteerism and income, the more you earn the more likely you are to volunteer,” said Ross Eisenbrey, Vice President of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C. “Because of the stock market crash, the newly retired have less income, they’re going to be less likely to volunteer.”
And little or no income means putting off retirement to work longer in life as well.
“There is definitely a trend of people working later in life,” said Jacquelyn James, co-director of research at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. “Nearly half of all people over age 50 say that it’s likely they’ll continue to work either full or part-time during retirement.”
Aside from the harsh economic impact that has taken a toll on boomers, there could be another, simpler reason why they are not volunteering as often later in life: they’re older, done working, and ready to enjoy themselves.
“It might have something to do with poorer health, but what else could it be? How about spending time traveling. Or spending time with grandchildren,” said Eisenbrey. “The things that get people involved in volunteering are often children and school, the 65 and older group is a long way from that.”
In fact, the 2013 BLS statistics show that that’s exactly who’s volunteering, and why: married, white, educated and part-time employed women between the age of 35 and 44 years old who have children under the age of 18 volunteer more than any other group, and they do it through educational or youth service programs. In other words, one of the busiest groups of people imaginable volunteers their time more than anyone else.
An improved economy and growing wages and income may help get baby boomers more involved, but so would a better marketing strategy towards the older generation. Boomers aren’t interested in volunteering just for the sake of it. They are looking for opportunities that engage them in the way their careers did.
A 2007 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service confirmed that while boomers in their younger years did volunteer at higher rates than other cohorts, the full volunteer potential of the group could be missed out on if more focus isn’t put on both recruiting and retaining them.
Organizations like Habitat for Humanity are doing all they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. Part of the plan for Habitat includes “Boomer Builds,” days of house-building in New York targeted specifically at people of a certain age group to come socialize with each other.
“When someone comes out to volunteer with us, do they feel recognized and thanked?” asked Neil Hetherington, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity New York City. “And if the answer is no, they’re not going to come back. So we have to have a meaningful recruitment and retention plan.”
But it’s not that easy to jump into volunteering when you’re 65 if you haven’t been doing it all along, according to James.
“The volunteer activities need to be something that gives a person a feeling of being needed and adding purpose to their lives,” said James. “They’re not interested in volunteering for volunteering sake. They want to be more engaged in what they’re doing and have it be something that makes them feel that they’re still productive members of society. And we need to work on that.”