Despite their pessimism about the direction of the country, Americans between the ages of 44 and 79 are ready and willing to pick up the mantle of volunteerism worn by earlier generations, according to a report released today by AARP and Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm that promotes innovative solutions to strengthen communities.
“The boomers and the Silent Generation answered the call to serve at home and overseas as the first members of the Peace Corps and VISTA,” says AARP’s COO, Tom Nelson. “Today, they’re living longer, healthier lives, and they want to do more.”
The report, “More to Give,” was released as part of the ServiceNation Summit in New York on Sept. 11-12 and the start of a national dialogue around the civic engagement of “Experienced Americans.” The goal of ServiceNation is to develop a blueprint for using volunteerism to address some of the challenges facing our society. “Harnessing that power has enormous potential to help solve our nation’s toughest problems,” says Nelson.
Kicking off the event Thursday evening will be Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, who will present their views on civic engagement. The summit brings together 500 other American leaders, including first lady Laura Bush; Sen. Hillary Clinton; Alma Powell, America’s Promise Alliance; Caroline Kennedy, NYC Fund for Public Schools; singer Raymond Usher; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Adm. Michael Mullen, chair, joint chiefs of staff; and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. More than 1,600 events have been scheduled in all 50 states as part of a Day of Action, scheduled for Sept. 27.
More than half of the 1,012 adults polled for the report said that a wish to help people in need was their chief motivation for volunteering, as was a feeling of responsibility to help others.
Among other reasons were the desire to stay healthy and active (48 percent) and to make an impact on an issue or problem facing the country (47 percent). Almost half said they preferred to volunteer on their own, while about a third wanted to work through a nonprofit or community organization.
The study found that the introduction of two key incentives could significantly increase volunteerism among this group: an education award that could be passed on to a child and access to group health insurance, particularly for those between the ages of 55 and 62.
The survey found that the biggest barriers to volunteering are lack of time (70 percent) and the need to earn a living (54 percent), followed by insufficient information about opportunities. “A majority of people who haven’t volunteered say that haven’t been asked,” says AARP’s Nelson. “We’re fixing that. AARP is joining with other nonprofits, lawmakers and the private sector to create ServiceNation, a united front to ask Americans of all ages to serve.”
The study was coauthored by three experts in civic engagement: John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises; Robert D. Putnam, author ofBowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community;and former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, special assistant to President Kennedy during the launch of the Peace Corps.
Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted the survey by telephone in June. Some of the key findings:
• A small majority of those surveyed (55 percent) believe they will leave the world worse off than they found it.
• Seven in 10 Experienced Americans would prefer to volunteer without a fixed schedule.
• The majority of respondents (53 percent) were not hampered by their own health issues or at-home caregiving.
• Women report higher levels of volunteerism than men. Republicans are more likely to volunteer regularly than Democrats or independents, as are individuals in a higher socioeconomic group.
• Working through a faith-based group, mentoring young people or helping older people live independently were the top three choices of volunteer activities.
Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in New York.