One of the really positive findings contained in this year’s Almanac – our annual overview of the state of charities – is that the proportion of young people saying they volunteer has increased by more than half in recent years.
In 2010/11, 23% of 16-24 year olds said they volunteered formally (ie through a group or organisation of some kind) at least once a month. By 2014/15 that figure was 35%. That’s a 52% increase, and in real terms it would mean around one million more young volunteers.
The data comes from the government’s Community Life Survey. For this year’s Almanac we examined the results from that survey and uncovered this encouraging trend (we’ll be releasing the details alongside the rest of the Almanac at midday).
It’s a dramatic increase, so naturally it raises the question of what’s behind it. Social change doesn’t often happen quite so quickly and these figures surprised us. The short answer is we don’t know for sure. We can’t tell from the data alone. But there are various things we think may be contributing.
What could be causing this?
Pushes to involve young people in volunteering
There have been a lot of big pushes over recent years to get more young people involved in volunteering. And there have been large-scale campaigns such as Join In, set up to encourage people to take up volunteering in community sports following the 2012 Olympics, and Step Up to Serve’s #iwill campaign, promoting engagement in youth social action.
We’ve also seen the introduction of the National Citizen Service (NCS). While NCS couldn’t account for this increase alone as its scale hasn’t been great enough to date, along with these campaigns it will have added to the general positive climate for young people’s volunteering.
They have helped young people see that volunteering is valuable and is valued in the eyes of education, future employers and their peers. Campaigns aimed at young people can also help challenge perceptions that volunteering is just for older people and raise awareness of the kind of roles available.
A tough employment market
The employment market has been tough for young people, and this may have led to more volunteering both as people try to gain skills to enhance their employability, but also if unemployment meant they had more free time. We know that a lack of time is one of the biggest barriers to volunteering that people report.
It’s getting easier and easier to find volunteering opportunities with the wider accessibility of online volunteer recruitment platforms.
Are we sure about these figures?
Any rapid increase like this naturally makes you want to check whether the figures are right. We think there are a range of reasons to be fairly confident.
- The figures come from the government’s Community Life Survey, which is a large-scale survey using a consistent methodology. The last year’s data, 2014/15, varies a bit as the sample size was smaller as costs were cut that year, and this means we should view the change between that year and the previous year with caution, but it fits the pattern of year-on-year increases seen in the previous three years. And this is a smooth upwards line, not a random jump. We’ve tested and found that the upwards trend is statistically significant, which means the change is likely to be real rather than due to chance.
- Other age groups didn’t see any changes – this is normal with volunteering data, you rarely see any big changes – so it seems that there’s really something different going on with young people.
- It’s backed up by work by others. Demos, for example, did some research on this. They surveyed teachers, who said that this generation’s teenagers are more engaged in social issues than their predecessors. Demos argued that that today’s young people have an instinct to favour ‘bottom-up’ social action over ‘top-down’ politics. The Community Life Survey numbers also closely match the numbers found by consultancy nfpSynergy using a different survey.
- We can’t know for sure that people saying they volunteer in a survey is the same as a real increase in volunteering. But it may be that by raising awareness of volunteering more generally, and by ‘normalising’ it as the campaigns of recent years have tried to do, people are more likely to realise that what they’re already doing is volunteering, and therefore to tick the box. More cynically, there might be an element of social desirability bias – if people think volunteering is a good thing to do they will be more likely to report that they do it. But even if some of the increase were accounted for by that, wouldn’t that be interesting in itself – that people are now more keen to identify as a volunteer? (It’s worth reading John Mohan’s blog post from a couple of years ago for more on this.)
We need to do more to look behind the data and see what’s going on here. Our research programme will be helping to unpick some of this. In the meantime, we’d be very interested in your thoughts, either on Twitter or in the comments section below.
In any case, any increase in young people’s volunteering is a good thing. We know it makes a real difference not only to things like employability, but also general wellbeing. It also helps set people up for a lifetime of volunteering and engagement in their communities.
The challenge now is building on any increase, and also making sure that the benefits of volunteering are enjoyed by young people from all backgrounds around the whole country.