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The boomers' impending retirement has spurred interest in tapping their productive energies to benefit society. This study examines older adults' decisions to stop or start formal volunteer work. The findings show that older adults usually stick with their original decisions, but more often stop than start volunteering. Volunteers who contribute a lot of hours over many years and who are married to volunteers are less likely to quit. And nonvolunteers are more likely to start volunteering if they have been uninvolved for few years and their spouses volunteer. The results highlight the importance of volunteer retention strategies for nonprofit agencies.
The 2005 White House Conference on Aging called for new and more meaningful volunteer opportunities for older Americans (Morrow-Howell 2006). Such opportunities encourage older adults to contribute their time and energy to society, which in turn appears to enhance volunteers’ health and wellbeing (Corporation for National and Community Service 2007). Much is known about the characteristics of older volunteers, but not about the dynamics of volunteerism. What proportion of volunteers pitches in for many years? What prompts older individuals to move in and out of volunteer activities? And how do changes in family status, health, and employment affect decisions to start or stop volunteering?
Answers to these and related questions would help nonprofits understand and, in some cases, change the forces affecting volunteers’ availability. Good information would also help policymakers appreciate the long-term importance of volunteering in older people’s lives and design ways to expand older Americans’ productivity and engagement.
This brief uses longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to examine entries into and exits from formal volunteer activities, and the factors that affect them.1 The analysis uses information collected from a sample of adults age 55 to 65 in 1996 who were reinterviewed in 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004. In this study, formal volunteering means any volunteer work for religious, educational, health-related, or other charitable organizations in the past 12 months.
While older adults usually stick with their original decision to volunteer or not, we find that they are more likely to stop than to start. Volunteers who contribute intensely and for many years and who are married to volunteers are the least likely to quit. And nonvolunteers are more likely to take the leap if they have been uninvolved for few years and their spouses volunteer. These results point to the need to focus efforts on retaining older volunteers to maximize volunteer engagement during later years. Recruiting older adults in volunteer activities early on, ideally before they retire, could fill any remaining gaps in volunteer needs.
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