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Patterns of volunteering throughout people’s lives

By Dr Eddy Hogg 6 November 2014

Britain is ageing. By 2033 nearly a quarter of the population will be over 65 years old, a shift which presents huge challenges and opportunities for society. On the 16 October, NPC’s Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing held a roundtable to discuss the impact of these on our sector.

Represented at the roundtable were expert views on ageing, philanthropy, charity law, voluntary organisations, and my own research interest: volunteering. From each perspective, an ageing population impacts on the sector differently: for those who study philanthropy the retirement of the asset-rich baby boomers could present a fantastic opportunity; while for those researching organisations it could include envisaging how they can adapt to meet the needs of the ever growing group of ‘old old’.

In an ageing population, the opportunities for volunteering are unprecedented, especially when we look at baby boomers. Not just asset-rich, they are often also time-rich, retiring with generous and protected pension schemes. Skilled and passionate, these new retirees could be an immense volunteer resource for decades to come. Yet they need to be well managed. After all, this is an age cohort used to personal freedom and one increasingly squeezed between caring for elderly parents and young grandchildren.

Good volunteer managers realise that older volunteers bring with them a complex life history, which may or may not include volunteering. Understanding prior experiences allows volunteer managers to understand what passions and skills volunteers can bring to their organisation.

A wide range of general and specialist skills can massively benefit voluntary organisations, but my research suggests that volunteer managers need to understand that while some older volunteers harbour a desire to use and build on existing skills, others may be keen to develop new knowledge and abilities. While one retired town planner may be delighted to continue using his or her professional skills in a voluntary capacity for a local neighborhood group, another may never want to see a building application or local area plan again!

Understanding this can ensure that volunteer engagement is well supported during and beyond the transition to retirement. The impact of this can be powerful. Volunteers who were previously only able to undertake occasional or event-based volunteering may be encouraged and supported to take on more substantial volunteer roles in retirement—roles they may undertake for many years.

If those working in the sector can recognise the differences between older volunteers, if they can harness their individual needs and enthusiasm, and create opportunities for committed yet flexible volunteering, then the retirement of the baby boomers offers an enormous opportunity. We must be ready to harness it!

For more on the future of volunteering in an ageing society, download the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing’s issue paper.