Baby Boomers Lead All Age Groups in Volunteering
When Dan Collins moved back to his native Baltimore after many years away, he wanted to get involved in the community. He dropped in at the Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, located within walking distance of the hospital where he worked as communications director, and found out the library needed volunteers to narrate audiobooks for patrons to check out. Collins offered to help. Fourteen years later, he still spends every Friday afternoon recording audiobooks for the library.
Tony Leto spent a career working as a food-service executive with a major airline. After retiring, he decided to do volunteer work to keep engaged and busy. He now spends four days each week helping at the National Telemarketing Victim Call Center, a nonprofit that provides education and prevention services to older consumers who are victims of scams. The Los Angeles-based center is a program of RSVP, America's largest volunteer network for people age 55 and over.
Collins and Leto, both baby boomers, are typical of their generation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more boomers volunteer their time than any other age group. And boomer volunteerism has increased during the past few decades. The volunteer rate for younger boomers, ages 46 to 57, is 30.9 percent, significantly higher than the 25.3 percent recorded by the same age group in 1974 and the 23.2 percent recorded in 1989.
Sandy Scott with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) calls the nation's 77 million boomers a "resource of extraordinary proportions." His agency engages more than 5 million Americans in service and volunteering through the Senior Corps, AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America programs, and leads President Obama's national call-to-service initiative, United We Serve. The generation born between 1946 and 1964 is well-represented in those service efforts.
"They bring a lifetime of skills and experience that can be channeled into tackling some of our toughest problems of poverty, illiteracy, health care and independent living," Scott says.
Why Boomers Volunteer
Making a difference has long been a habit for boomers.
"As the post-World War II generation, baby boomers escaped the trauma of the Great Depression and global warfare [and] instead, they had the breathing space to think beyond themselves, imagine a better world, and muster the daring to try and create it," says Dave Corbett, founder of Boston career consultancy New Directions Inc. and author of Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After Fifty. "Many boomers have held on to this unusual degree of idealism. Now, they have a wealth of expertise and, because they're living longer and staying more fit, many have the energy, the spare time, the vision, and the expertise to devote to worthy causes."
Boomers are the best-educated, wealthiest, healthiest, longest-living generation ever, and are well-equipped to make a difference in the communities they choose to serve.
"We came of age in the 1960s and were inspired by the social activism of that time," says 60-year-old Jane Ramberg, a research biologist who has volunteered since 2009 at The Senior Source, a Dallas-based nonprofit. "Also, we're among the luckiest people on the planet: We are well-educated, comfortable, well-fed, and overall blessed. Looking at the rest of the world, it's hard not to want to give something back."
As the first boomers turned 65 this year, some have chosen to retire and spend their time volunteering. But the flip side is that plenty of people who would like to be working for a paycheck find themselves unemployed. For many, volunteering is an avenue back into the workplace.
"For [boomers] who still need to earn a paycheck, and especially for those in a job search," Corbett says, "volunteering provides a great line item for their resume and a conversation starter in a job interview."
Changing the World
Much of the corporate philanthropy that nonprofits depend on can be attributed to boomers, particularly boomer women. "The post-World War II generation produced a far higher percentage of women who earned college degrees," Corbett says. "If you look at the well-known companies that have made a name for themselves being philanthropic and even proactive on issues like the environment, human rights, a cure for cancer, many of these efforts were driven by boomer women HR executives who persuaded their CEOs or boards of directors to publicly take on charitable issues and keep them on the radar.
Corbett adds, "It's not always glamorous to take on the tough issues of our time, and it is certainly not easy. But it is the noble path to take."
When people volunteer, they don't just help others; they also help themselves. "Volunteering leads to new discoveries and new friends, and studies show it helps people live longer and promotes a positive outlook on life," Scott says. A research study conducted by CNCS showed that volunteering leads to health benefits including lower rates of depression and disease among older Americans who serve.
"Volunteering brings out the best in you," Corbett says. "Our volunteers at Habitat for Humanity building sites, for example, or the mentors for inner-city job trainees, or at the Boston Food Bank warehouse, are delighted with these opportunities because they get energized by a worthwhile mission. If you're sunk in your own worries or feeling alone, giving someone less fortunate your undivided attention is a very affirming, very restorative thing to do."
To find a volunteer opportunity that best fits you, start with an online search for local organizations that serve the cause of your choice. The federal government is more committed than ever to getting boomers involved in community service. GetInvolved.gov connects adults 55 and over with volunteer opportunities in their communities. A partner site, VolunteerMatch, allows users to search by ZIP code for local volunteer opportunities. A nonprofit organization, VolunteerMatch is used as a recruitment tool by almost 74,000 nonprofits.
In addition, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, passed by Congress in 2009, made several changes to expand service opportunities for boomers, Scott says. One of those changes was to lower the age minimum for Senior Companions and Foster Grandparents from 60 to 55. The Serve America Act also made AmeriCorps more boomer-friendly by setting a goal that 10 percent of AmeriCorps positions will be filled by people 55 and over, and by allowing 55-plus AmeriCorps members the option of transferring the education award they earn at the end of their service to a child or grandchild.
For Collins, the audiobook narrator, volunteering is a way of life because of the example his parents set when he was growing up in Baltimore.
"Baby boomers are the sons and daughters of the 'Greatest Generation,' those who lived through and fought in World War II," he says. "These were individuals who were used to sacrifice, to the idea of pitching in, that life wasn't all about oneself, that giving back wasn't something beyond the norm. It was typical. It was expected."
SecondAct contributor Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Alabama.