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Volunteer Transitions among Older Americans

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Document date: December 13, 2007
Released online: December 13, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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Abstract

As the nation ages, older adults' volunteer activities are becoming increasingly important This study uses longitudinal data from a nationally representative survey to examine entries into and exits from volunteer activities by adults age 55 to 65. The findings reveal considerable persistence among both volunteers and nonvolunteers; however, older adults are more likely to stop volunteering than to start. Duration and intensity of volunteering, as well as marriage to a volunteer, are strong predictors of continued volunteer activities. And, the time spent away from volunteer activities, as well as marriage to a nonvolunteer decreases the odds of volunteer starts.


Introduction

As America ages, older adults’ role in society and the contributions they make are gaining importance. Although employment rates decline at older ages, many seniors can and do remain productively engaged by volunteering for charitable and community organizations. These activities help nonprofits meet the growing demand for volunteers (Urban Institute 2004) and also appear to enhance the health and well-being of those who contribute their time and energy (Corporation for National and Community Service [CNCS] 2007a). The time that adults age 55 and older devoted to formal volunteer activities in 2002 has been valued at $44 billion (Johnson and Schaner 2005), and this estimate is likely to increase as the large baby boom generation grows older. But nonprofits will likely have to intensify efforts to recruit new volunteers and retain existing ones if they are to maximize the potential of older volunteers. The 2005 White House Conference on Aging, in fact, called for new and more meaningful volunteer opportunities for older Americans (Morrow-Howell 2006).

While we know a lot about the characteristics of older volunteers, we know relatively little about the dynamics of volunteerism. For example, how many years do volunteers typically spend volunteering? What factors determine whether older individuals move into and out of volunteer activities? How do changes in family status, health, and employment affect decisions to start or stop volunteering? Understanding more about the process of volunteering would help nonprofit organizations understand how personal characteristics and events affect the availability of volunteers and help policymakers understand the long-term importance of volunteering in older individuals’ lives. A fuller understanding of potential barriers and facilitators to volunteerism may also help policymakers design the right kinds of opportunities to expand older Americans’ productivity and engagement.

This study uses longitudinal data from a nationally representative survey to examine entries into and exits from formal volunteer activities between 1996 and 2004 by adults age 55 to 65 at study baseline. The report begins with a review of the literature on volunteering by older adults, including the benefits of volunteering. It then describes the data, methods, and sample criteria. Results show the duration of volunteer activities, the probability that older adults start and stop volunteering, and the factors that significantly predict volunteer transitions.

The findings reveal considerable stability among both volunteers and nonvolunteers. Among adults age 55 to 65 in 1996, nearly seven-eighths of those who volunteered in 1996 volunteered again by 2004, and only about a third of those who did not volunteer in 1996 did any volunteering by 2004. Older adults are more likely to stop volunteering than to start volunteering. Duration and intensity of volunteering, as well as marriage to a volunteer, are strong predictors of continued volunteer activities. And, the time spent away from volunteer activities, as well as marriage to a nonvolunteer, decreases the odds of volunteer starts. Additionally, changes in physical and mental health and caregiving responsibilities affect the probabilities of stopping and starting volunteer activities. The results point to the need to engage older adults in volunteer activities early on, ideally before they retire, to maximize volunteer engagement during later years.

(End of excerpt. The entire paper is available in PDF format.)



Topics/Tags: | Nonprofits | Retirement and Older Americans


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