Volunteerism and Employment: the surprising relationship

Volunteerism: it’s not a function of spare time!

We know that people volunteer when they have both the heart for it and the resources for it, but which resource is more important, time or money? I would have thought that time would be the critical resource. This feels like the case for me anyway – the limiting factor on how much volunteering I can do tends to be busyness. But, then again, I’ve mostly been gainfully employed when not a full-time student or a full-time volunteer. But here’s some interesting data that has me thinking today.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the current US unemployment rate is around 9.1%. But we know this figure is a pretty flawed measure for a number of reasons I won’t get into here. The statistic I like to follow is the civilian labor force participation rate, which stands now at about 63.9%. This is a measure of everyone of working age that is either actively employed or seeking employment. It doesn’t include students, retired people, stay-at-home parents, people in prisons, informal workers, or people who have given up looking for work. So, this means that about 36% of the working age population is currently not working or looking for work. This isn’t to say that these people aren’t busy – but perhaps they are less busy than those working full-time. So, since this figure is at currently as low as its been in the past 30-years (because the participation rate is near a 30-year low), one might think that working-age Americans have more time on their hands than usual.

So, given that (1) there are a lot of Americans suffering in the current economy (2) both State and Federal governments are pulling back resources from social programs, and (3) it would appear that Americans have more time than usual to volunteer, should we expect to see rates of volunteerism up? Let’s look at the data.

According to Volunteering In America, the number of volunteers nationwide dropped last year by 600,000 to 62.8 million. The national volunteer rate now stands at 26.3%. We can compare that to 28.8% from 2003 to 2005. In other terms, there are over 2.5 million fewer Americans volunteering today than just six years ago.  What’s going on? Do people volunteer less when they are unemployed?

Again, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they don’t. In a report released earlier this year, between 2006 and 2010, employed people volunteered at a rate 6-7 percentage points more than unemployed people. So, we shouldn’t be too surprised then when we see rates of volunteerism falling as unemployment rates increase.

Generation X – the heroes of volunteerism in America?

Now, just for fun, I wonder what the picture looks like when we look at volunteerism rates by age group.  As expected, the rates of volunteerism among retired people are stunningly stable over the past decade. But if we look at who is volunteering less among the working-age population, the picture is really quite interesting.

The baby boomers, approaching retirement are volunteering less. The Millennials, striving to establish themselves in the workforce, are volunteering less. But, we of Generation X, in the prime of our working years, are volunteering more.

It seems that the Millennials are hit hardest by rising unemployment rates – they have the least experience. It seems the Boomers are also getting it a bit rough as some are induced to an early retirement – they cost the most to keep employed. But the Gen-Xers seem to be losing their jobs at a slightly slower rate than these – again, in the prime of their working years. (I did some playing around with data at MetricMash and these statements seem supportable by the data.)

Now, we know that coupled with higher rates of unemployment, those who do have jobs are working longer hours than ever. Overtime is up among non-exempt workers, and hours are up among exempt workers. So, it would appear that the Gen-Xers are simultaneously working longer hours and volunteering more. Interesting indeed.

UPDATE: August 13.

I’ve had to revise my conclusions on this to take into account the “volunteer life-cycle”. I still think Gen X demonstrates a certain kind of heroism with regards to volunteering in America, but not for the same reason described here. To find out why, click here:Generation X and Volunteerism – nuancing the “hero” status.










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Categories: Volunteering


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5 Comments on “Volunteerism and Employment: the surprising relationship”

  1. August 9, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Some interesting insights! Unfortunately, we do not havve such researchful statistics in India to analyze. Yet, good to learn the implications from such data.

  2. August 9, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    This is great… After a few years in the US, and now back in Guatemala, I just wonder what are the factors for low volunteerism in Guatemala. We have some international volunteers, but there is a lack of Guatemalan volunteers. Thanks for the data, very interesting.

    • August 10, 2011 at 6:49 am #


      I’ve been to Guatemala on five separate occasions, the longest of which was only 10 weeks, so I can’t pretend to know the country, but my experience in other Latin American countries (5+ years in Bolivia, 1.5 years in Colombia) leads me to think that low rates of volunteerism in the region may be driven by other factors quite different from the US. My hunch is that it is more of a cultural thing. While people are very good at providing mutual support and aid in smaller rural villages and towns, the concept of volunteering to help strangers, in particular people that don’t even live in your neighborhood or community is not culturally mainstream – at least not yet. There are some efforts to build up a culture of local volunteerism. In the US, a lot of it was driven by the churches. But, at least among young people, it is also driven by colleges and universities seeking students that stand out from the crowd. Since there are lots of college applicants that meet the academic requirements, students are encouraged to demonstrate their social value through volunteer work. I wonder what would happen in Guatemala if those making university entrance decisions began to value such community service, making it an option that had returns for youth beyond the value of participation in the activity itself.

  3. Peter F
    August 10, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Very good data. I kept thinking what would also be interesting to see is volunteer/charitiable giving levels per individuals self-identifying as democrats, independents, and republicans.

    • August 10, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

      I’m sure its out there. When you find it, let me know. What is interesting and what I’ve seen is the percent of giving broken out by wealth. It turns out the less well-off give a lot more as a percent of their income than the wealthy. I think that is thought provoking.

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