Older volunteers, resilience and why we shouldn’t be complacent

Older volunteers don’t seem to be affected by economic austerity as much as we might think – but as changes to pension and retirement age come into effect, it’s no time to be complacent about this highly active group of individuals.

A considerable gap in our volunteering knowledge

Volunteering by older people makes an enormous contribution to our communities – the 65-74 age bracket demonstrates the highest rate of regular formal volunteering of any age group, with 32% taking part at least once a month. But interest from policy makers, researchers or organisations hasn’t quite matched this. Most attention has tended to focus on the opposite end of the age spectrum. As a result of the excellent work being done by organisations such as Step Up to Serve and NCS, and the growth in research in this area, our understanding of the value of volunteering and social action to young people is becoming ever more nuanced. This is clearly a good thing, but is there a risk that our knowledge and understanding of volunteering by older people is slowly becoming more out of date?

Are older people back on the agenda?

To a large degree the recent report by the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing (PDF, 0.8MB) helped put this issue back in focus. The report was a helpful reminder that we have a rapidly ageing society and major changes on the horizon such as increases in pension age and increasing retirement age. There was also some interesting discussion last year about what this could mean for volunteering by older people, something that was sparked by a letter from an older national trust volunteer.

Talking about the ‘me’ generation?

Delve into the evolution of social action, and whether your volunteers’ motivations vary by generation, in our S5 strategic workshop on The changing face of volunteering at Evolve 2015.

Find out more about Evolve 2015

It’s good to be surprised

This was a topic that was discussed at an event IVR, the ESRC and Northumbria University last week, and kindly hosted by Wiserd, which explored volunteering by older people in relation to economic austerity. Each of our speakers examined whether the economic climate and the changes we’re seeing have affected volunteering by older people. I have to say I went in to the event fully expecting a resounding yes – that they would present research and thinking that would show that our supply of older volunteers could drop off a cliff at any moment. So I was somewhat surprised to hear the opposite.

Economic austerity doesn’t seem to be driving older people’s volunteering

Firstly, Maurice Stringer from the University of Ulster, referencing work he’d undertaken with Volunteer Now in Belfast, showed that older people’s volunteering tended to be affected by personal circumstances more than anything else. Similarly, Eddy Hogg from the University of Kent described how his PhD research had shown that older people’s volunteering had largely been insulated from the effects of the public spending cuts. Providing a policy perspective in Wales, Bryan Collis and Fiona Liddell of WCVA agreed that the effects of austerity on older volunteers are secondary to social effects, such as caring responsibilities. And finally, Rebecca Stewart, Head of Volunteering at AgeUK, confirmed that their organisation had not found that budget cuts had driven volunteering behaviour by older people.

So is this a non-issue?

There wasn’t quite as much agreement as this simple summary might suggest but nonetheless from what I heard, there doesn’t seem to be much – or any – evidence that volunteering by older people is being affected by the economic climate and its associated policies. But the speakers did acknowledge that just because it hasn’t been observed yet, doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. So are we still going to see a dramatic reduction in older volunteers and how will the sector that depends so heavily on them cope? Well, we don’t know but my guess is that it’s still a very real possibility. For me, perhaps the most important thing is what Rebecca Stewart ended the afternoon with – that even though signs are positive at the moment, we can’t get complacent and need to continue to understand what drives older people to volunteer and what stops them, and invest to make sure we maintain the quality of the experience.

You will be able to download all of the event’s presentations from the ESRC’s website shortly. In the meantime you can get a sense of the twitter discussion from the storify we produced.

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Avatar photo Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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