Generation X and Volunteerism – nuancing the “hero” status


A couple of days ago I published a graph showing that Gen Xers have increased their rates of volunteerism over the past 5-6 years, while the rates of the Baby Boomers and Millennials decreased. (See full post here.) Being that I am smack in the middle of the Gen X birth range, this was a bit self-congratulatory, but hey, you can’t deny the evidence, right? Well, they say that statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics. This may be one of those cases, albeit accidental.

The Volunteer Life-cycle

This morning I was reading the just published Volunteering in America 2011 Research Highlights, and they were talking about this very topic – Generation X and its volunteering rates. Like me, they celebrate the  increased rate of volunteerism among members of my generation.

“Once stereotyped as skeptical and disengaged, Generation X is showing signs of optimism that they can make a difference in their communities through service as they become more connected to local networks through their careers and their children. Gen X members have more than doubled their volunteer rate between 1989 and the present day.”

I'm just now peaking in my volunteer life-cycle, so be nice.

They didn’t stop there, though. They went a bit deeper and brought up the “volunteer life-cycle”. The graph below, taken from this report, shows that volunteerism rates are higher in the teen years than in early adulthood, then they start to pick up in the early twenties and peak in the middle age (35-44 year olds), then they drop off again as age increases. So, it should be no surprise then that Generation X (people aged 30-46) are increasing their rates of volunteerism over other generations that are in a declining stage of the volunteer life-cycle.

To really be the “heroes of American volunteerism” as I claimed yesterday, the Gen Xers would have to show that they’ve somehow ridden their volunteer life-cycle better than the other generations. Let’s look at the data. Now, the graph is actually not very intuitive to read, and the data doesn’t really go back far enough to be super useful, but I’ll walk you through what I read in this. Back in 1989 (the red line), when I was 16, others about my age were volunteering less than people did when they were 16 in surveys taken before and since. Thus the whole “skeptical and disengaged” reputation we acquired about that time when the term “Generation X” was first popularly used to describe my generation. (Douglas Coupland’s seminal book Generation X was published in 1991.)

So, my generation started with a volunteerism rate much lower than other generations. What has happened since? Fast forward to 2010 (the light blue line). Now members of Gen X are between 30- and 46-years old. We’re no longer the cohort on the bottom at this age. The lowest line for this age range is still red, representing those that were of this age back in 1989. This would be tail end of the Baby Boomers. (Did mention that this graph is not very intuitive for what we are trying to read from it?)

Conclusion

So, when we take just a snap-shot of the present (the graph from my previous post), Gen X looks awesome, the only generation increasing their rates of volunteerism. But when we take into account the “volunteer life-cycle”, we see that every generation goes through the same pattern, it’s just our turn to be peaking because we’ve reached that certain stage in our life when all generations volunteer the most. When you compare the trajectory that we’ve taken with other generations, the most striking element is the low starting point of our generation – the disengaged slackers that we once were. But, also striking is what we’ve done since. We have, in essence, redeemed ourselves, volunteering in our middle age at rates similar to other generational cohorts, even more so than the Baby Boomers did when they were our age.

So, maybe we aren’t the heroes as I claimed earlier, but maybe we are. Yeh, we started off as slackers, but we pulled out of it, learned how to hope, and got engaged. That sounds pretty heroic to me.

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2 Comments on “Generation X and Volunteerism – nuancing the “hero” status”

  1. August 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    Here is a nice infoposter from United We Serve summarizing some of the data in the Volunteerism in America 2011 report. http://www.serve.gov/stories_detail.asp?tbl_servestories_id=627

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  1. Peace Corps (Volunteers) Turn 51: Baby Boomers & the Changing Face of Volunteering Abroad | Staying for Tea - June 7, 2012

    [...] rates of volunteering continue to fall for the Baby Boomers as they age (a normal part of the volunteer life-cycle that I’ve blogged about before), there is an absolute increase in older Americans [...]

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