The Volunteer Generation Gap

By Susan J. Ellis

I just returned home from the Points of Light National Conference on Community Service in Orlando. On the plane back to Philadelphia, I reflected on many of the things I heard during those four days--many of which will undoubtedly find their way into future Hot Topics. Knowing that the deadline was looming for this July Hot Topic, I asked myself “was anything surprising?” That’s when I recognized that I had witnessed several incidents completely separate from one another, but on the same theme: generational claims to the “most” civic engagement.

On one side: the twenty-somethings and younger. On the other: the sixty-somethings and older. In public and in private, from plenary speeches and workshop presentations to conversations in the exhibit area, I listened to variations on these two conflicting themes:

  • Seniors are the ones who care about the broader community and are the backbone of volunteer programs and service organizations. Young people are selfish and don’t want to make commitments.
  • Young people are the true activists today. Older people may do nice, helpful things as volunteers, but cutting-edge work for social change is being done mainly by the young.

Both “sides” felt preached to by the other. Several people expressed end-of-the-rope frustration of the “if I hear this one more time, I’ll scream” variety.

It is dismaying to see time and talent wasted on such silly debate. In trying to analyze what is going on, I thought about an intriguing question posed to me during my recent trip to Australia. A community there is considering the formation of a senior volunteer program, much like RSVP elsewhere. But the person involved in the planning asked: “Isn’t there a negative reaction anywhere to the ‘ghetto-ization’ of age groups?” In surprise, I realized that we have all begun to assume that age-based volunteer programs are natural and inevitable. It never occurred to me before that, by definition, such programs foster separation that could have negative consequences. (See how useful it is to engage in international exchange? It’s always valuable to question assumptions, if only to reconfirm our commitment to them.)

Obviously there are many good reasons for continuing the practice of youth-only and senior-only volunteer projects. And, of course, there are innumerable intergenerational opportunities everywhere. But do we collectively share some responsibility for the type of us-vs.-them mentality that surfaced in Orlando? For example:

  • In recruiting for and recognizing volunteers in single-generation programs do we imply (or even say) that older/younger people are the most involved or are the best? For example, do we quote statistics that bolster this impression (since there are conflicting data and we will all, naturally, choose those figures that prove the point we want to make)?
  • Do we determine goals and choose activities without any consideration for whether another age group is also involved in some way? And, even if younger/older volunteers want to tackle a need with different actions, do we encourage coordination? Do we even inform the “other” side what is being done?
  • Do we confuse changes in volunteering with the demise of volunteering? After all, at the same time that Robert Putnam published “Bowling Alone” bemoaning the downfall of American associational activity, John McKnight published his discovery of the thriving collective organization of inner city poor neighborhoods. So seniors see the struggles of traditional service clubs to find long-term members as evidence of young people’s apathy, while young people point to what they see as the ineffectiveness of older folk’s organizations. Both are wrong conclusions, but the attitudes stem from generational separation.

It ought to be possible to identify and celebrate the best volunteer actions of both age groups--as well as to recognize that both old and young volunteers can be unsuccessful despite sincere attempts to have an impact. None of the speakers or conference participants who eloquently praised their age group meant to express prejudice. But they all believed what they said.

So...has this “volunteer generation gap” affected you in any way? Have you heard similar attitudes? What can we do about it?

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