Despite stressful times-antiterrorism anxieties, the slumping economy and shaken faith in institutions from the Catholic Church to bankrupt corporations-older Americans are volunteering their time and energy to community programs in rising numbers. Also, many more probably would pitch in if programs had the tools they need to recruit and involve older volunteers. Small inducements could double the older-volunteer force in the United States. These are some of the main conclusions drawn from the latest round of interviews conducted for "The New Faces of Retirement: An Ongoing Survey of American Attitudes on Aging" by respected polltaker Peter D. Hart, president of Hart Research Associates, Washington, D.C.
"These are not people who are defeated, but who are determined to make a difference," stated Hart, who presented the survey results in October 2002 at the 4th annual Coming of Age conference held by the study's sponsor, Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization. For a growing number of people age 50 or older, Hart said, "civic engagement is not just about filling time, but it's also about filling a need, and they need to be involved. Among volunteers we surveyed, 76% tell us this is very or fairly important."
Hart said that the results of the telephone survey, which included 600 randomly selected people ages 50 to 75 in the United States-half of them volunteers and half not-were compared to findings from a similar poll by the group in the economic boom year of 1999. Overall, 57% of respondents said they had volunteered in the past three years, including 42% of those not currently volunteering. The percentage of respondents who agreed that volunteering is very or fairly important jumped from 50% in 1999 to 56% in 2002.
A related federal study, "Volunteering in the United States," which was released in December by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), found that in a sample of 60,000 households, "those 35 to 54 were the most likely to volunteer, with one in three having donated their time." BLS calculated that 59 million Americans age 16 or older, or 27.6% of the population, volunteered about one hour per week during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2002. This study determined that the volunteer rate for the oldest U.S. citizens, those age 65 or more, was among the lowest at 22.7%. However, the BLS data also showed that, of any age group, elders who did volunteer devoted the most time to community activities-almost double the national median. Compared with the U.S. median commitment of 52 volunteer hours annually, those 65 and over contributed 96 hours.
Civic Ventures president and CEO Marc Freedman told Aging Today that the Hart survey and the BLS report "reveal two sides of the same coin." On one side, he said, the studies show that volunteering has grown steadily since the 1960s, and older people "continue to express a deeply felt yearning to do much more." On the other side is "a paucity of the kind of volunteer opportunities capable of capturing the imagination of a new generation of older Americans. Freedman characterized older Americans as "a group that might be described as all dressed up with too few places to goand the Department of Labor numbers reflect this gap."
Hart's survey for Civic Ventures included a series of questions to discern what is important to older people in their lives- "not about volunteering, just about their lives," Hart emphasized. The findings showed that "they want to be productive, intellectually stimulated, to have something significant to do, and to stay physically active. It's not the idea of shuffle board, it is not the idea of sitting back in a rocker-these people want to he engaged." Furthermore, he said, the answers of those who volunteer revealed that "they believe volunteering will produce a better, happier, fuller life."
Also, 59% of all respondents in 2002 said they believe retirement is a "time to begin a new chapter"; only 24% agreed that it is "a time to take it easy. …