America Turns Inward in Tough Times

Volunteer activities down as baby boomers look after their own; retired people doing less, too.

By + More

The economic downturn has led to major cutbacks in volunteer activities, according to the 2009 Civic Health Index, an annual survey from the National Conference on Citizenship. Even among people who already have reached retirement age, 75 percent said they had reduced their volunteer activities in the past year. And the slightly younger baby boomer group was particularly hard hit. "Sandwich generation" pressures forced boomers to provide more support to their children and their parents, with traditional volunteer activities suffering as a result," the survey report said.

[See 7 Tips for Finding Right Volunteer Work.] "Although older people say they have cut back on their civic engagement overall and report lower volunteering rates than their younger peers, they are still helping in other ways," the report added. "Sixty-five percent of baby boomers and 71 percent of [persons] age 65-plus either gave food or money or provided shelter to others who needed it. Although only 35 percent of baby boomers volunteered, an additional 38 percent of them provided food, money, or shelter." Overall, it said, 75 percent of persons aged 65 and up, and 73 percent of baby boomers, engaged in some type of helping behavior.

"Traditionally, baby boomers have been engaging at the highest levels across the board," said David B. Smith, the group's executive director. "But they have been pulling back in these hard times." The survey was taken last May, before consistent signs of an economic recovery had emerged, and Smith hopes it will prove to have been a low-water mark for civic engagement. In terms of baby boomers, he said, reduced public commitments have been replaced by more private support for aging parents and for their children. With many young adults trying to navigate a brutal job market, many have been forced to turn to their parents for financial support and even housing.

[See Sandwich Generation Squeezed by Downturn.]

"We're finding very interesting differences between working baby boomers and non-working baby boomers," Smith said. "There are twice as many working boomer volunteers as non-working boomers. . . . You might think that people would have more time to volunteer when they are retired, but it turns out that your social connection to your community decreases significantly when you retire, and the level of volunteering falls off."

Still, seniors remain very engaged in helping others, Smith said. In addition to traditional volunteer activities—in schools, churches and other organizations—the May survey asked people if they provided either money, food, or shelter to others. For people aged 65 and up, he said, "looking at engagement overall, they actually are the most engaged in some ways."

One reason for reduced voluntarism is that non-profits themselves have seen funding reductions. With fewer staffers, community outreach efforts have suffered and opportunities for volunteers have been reduced as well. But the dominant theme of the survey, Smith noted, is that times are tough, and people have turned inward to care for family. And themselves.

Two thirds of those surveyed for the Index said they felt people were looking out for themselves; only 19 percent said hard times had caused people to think more of helping others. "This civic downturn is troubling at a time when the need for service and civic action is especially great," the group said.

[See Local Needs Demand Senior Activists.]