This morning the University of Southampton published a new study which found that volunteering has a relationship with people’s wellbeing, but only in later life. The Daily Telegraph ran a story titled ‘Volunteering is not beneficial until you hit 40’, and I want to share my thoughts about what the data could tell those of us working with and supporting volunteers.
A positive association between volunteering and wellbeing
That volunteering has a positive relationship to levels of wellbeing amongst older people confirms much of what we hear from our members and those we undertake research with. Levels of ill health and social isolation are higher in older age groups and we know that volunteering brings benefits such as social contact, exercise, and mental stimulation. It may be that younger age groups simply did not have such a ‘demand’ for such benefits of volunteering, and they therefore didn’t show up in the survey data. However, it’s important to note that the researchers have found a relationship between volunteering and wellbeing, rather than causation. We don’t necessarily know if the volunteering causes improvements in wellbeing, or if people feeling happier and better about themselves have more space and inclination to volunteer.
Younger volunteers still experience benefits
None of this means that young people don’t experience benefits to their volunteering. Wellbeing is clearly only one possible impact of volunteering and certain benefits will be more pronounced amongst particular age groups. We often find that impacts for young people are more closely associated with employability and their careers, but self-reported improvements in mental and physical health also come out very high.
Young people are also more active than ever – national data shows that in the past five years we’ve seen a 50% increase in rates of volunteering by people aged 16 to 25 (which is particularly relevant here as the data studied by the Southampton researchers only runs up to 2008). This increase is potentially because of the considerable government investment in youth social action, but also presumably because these young people are getting something out of their experience.
Furthermore, younger people are clearly not a homogenous group and the benefits of volunteering will vary by people’s backgrounds and personal circumstances. People who have multiple challenges in their lives will experience volunteering differently. Volunteering will be an enjoyable leisure activity for some, but will be fundamentally life-changing for others, and the intensity of impact will vary considerably within the under 40 group identified in this study.
Understanding the impact of volunteering throughout someone’s life
NCVO’s Pathways through Participation research project was one of the first pieces of work to look at how people’s involvement in their communities changed over their lives. It found that volunteering waxed and waned in response to things like having children, changing jobs, the influence of family and friends and much more. Volunteering does not exist in a bubble, a notion that underpins the University of Southampton’s research. Improving our understanding of how volunteering changes over people’s lives is hugely helpful and I’ve seen many organisations change their approach to recruiting, supporting and retaining volunteers for the better as a result.
We need to talk about volunteering by older people
This study is a useful reminder that we should not ignore volunteering by older age groups. But a part of me is concerned that this is exactly what we’re doing and we may not always see such high engagement by people in the later stages of their lives. People will be working later in life. They will be receiving their pension at a higher age. They are likely to be taking on more caring commitments for their grandchildren. All this could mean that we may see them having less time to volunteer, and a lack of time is consistently given as the main reason people give for not getting involved. We’ve got used to the baby boomers having a lot of time to volunteer and, as a result of retiring at a comparatively young age, frequently being in good health. If this age group volunteer less in the future, many organisations could find it difficult to function in the same way as they do now.
We clearly shouldn’t ignore younger volunteers as all ages of volunteers benefit in some way. There would, however, be considerable benefit to building on today’s research and re-focusing a bit of our attention to what’s happening to volunteering by older people and how we most effectively support and encourage it in the future.