It’s now over a year since the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing published its final report, and it’s an interesting time to reflect on the Commission’s findings and on the progress made since. One of the report’s key messages was that significant changes are ahead and that the charity sector needs to be better prepared to respond. But I don’t think any fortune teller would have predicted the changes we’ve seen over the last few weeks.

While we did warn of a collective failure of imagination in the sector, there is no satisfaction in being right in some of our predictions about polarisation between generations, alienated donors, and the blurring of boundaries between sectors causing concerns for the public. It does, however, feel like the right time to remind ourselves why we looked 20 years ahead: because there are opportunities to be grasped, not least the chance for the sector to shape the future we want to see.

Our ageing population means we face ‘a fundamental redesign of life’

In our work we talked about the challenge of a changing, and ageing, demographic and what that would mean for all charities—whether their mission is the environment, heritage, social care, housing, education or whatever else. The 100-Year Life, a new book by Lynda Grattan and Andrew Scott of London Business School, also reflects on these societal changes. A baby born in the West today will probably live to 105, so if turning 100 becomes normal, then the authors predict there will be ‘a fundamental redesign of life’.

We currently live a ‘three-stage life’: education, career, retirement. We’re adding two more life-stages, one at the beginning of adult life and the other towards the end. The years from 18 to 30 are now a drawn out time of transition, with people leaving home later and exploring new options—bringing demands for meaning and purpose. Older people of the future are affected in a similar way. Retirement will cease to be a single staging point and the very concept may disappear entirely. People from their mid 50s and into their late 80s will develop portfolio careers and they too will demand the flexibility and reskilling to make this possible. They won’t suddenly stop work—they will be in paid and unpaid work longer, balancing caring, retraining or just keeping fit for those extra decades.

The voluntary sector can benefit from this ‘redesign’

All of this change creates great opportunities for the third sector to provide meaningful careers of both employment and volunteering, and to enable all ages to take on leadership and governance roles that use their experience and expertise. There is the potential for a real bonanza of skills and resources for the voluntary sector if it can become the sector of flexibility and adaptability. From those at the beginning of adult life, the voluntary sector could benefit from the enthusiasm and energy that already underpins the growth of ‘businesses with purpose’ and social enterprises, because values-based activity will be essential. The other end of life will become very similar. Among the portfolio of activities there will be a real demand from older people for two or three decades more of fulfilled work, and for contributing to causes in which they can find purpose and meaning.

But in order to benefit, the sector must change too

The sector can no longer assume that volunteers, of any age, will be available at the same time every week for the foreseeable future. Time to be a trustee will have to compete with other demands. The time that both older and younger adults will make available to voluntary organisations will be far less than most charities currently take for granted.

More than that, what they’ll want to do will be very different too. Older people now and in the future will have many more demands on their finances. This won’t just affect trusteeship and volunteering, but fundraising too. What money they give will be more constrained and, as a generation that has had to become finance-savvy to manage their pensions, they will want to be treated like sensible investors, not soft-hearted donors.

Like the rest of society, the voluntary sector has to stop being ageist. It needs to recognise that lives are changing, are longer, more complex, and that it too needs to change to thrive. Because if it doesn’t it will fail to grasp what I still believe to be a real ‘age of opportunity’ for the voluntary sector. It will fail to seize the skills and expertise of people of all ages and it will not mobilise the resources that could help us rethink civil society. Worst of all, the potential to enable people to live well—contributing, learning, giving, receiving throughout their lives—will be squandered. And that’s certainly not a legacy I want to leave.

Read our new paper for further reflections a year on from the close of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing.

Share how the Commission’s work has influenced your thinking on Twitter with the hashtag #AgeOpportunity.

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