Tuesday, December 5, 2006

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What happened to bowling alone?

The Corporation for National and Community Service -- a government entity that runs AmeriCorps and Senior Corps -- issues a report that would, at first glance, surprise those who have read Bowling Alone. From the press release:

Volunteering has reached a 30-year high in the United States, as more people pitch in to help their communities, according to a study released today by the Corporation for National and Community Service....

The report, Volunteer Growth in America: A Review of Trends Since 1974, finds that adult volunteering rose sharply between 1989 and 2005, increasing more than 32 percent over the last 16 years....

The brief analyzes volunteering rates in 1974, 1989 and 2002-2005, using information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It finds that the growth in volunteering is driven primarily by three age groups: teenagers 16 to 19, Baby Boomers and others age 45 to 65, and older adults 65 and over....

Among the findings:

  • Older teenagers (ages 16-19) have more than doubled their time spent volunteering since 1989.

  • Far from being a “Me Generation,” Baby Boomers are volunteering at sharply higher rates than did the previous generation at mid-life.

  • The volunteer rate for Americans ages 65 years and over has increased 64 percent since 1974.

  • The proportion of Americans volunteering with an educational or youth service organization has seen a 63 percent increase just since just 1989....
  • Educational and youth service organizations (such as schools, 4-H, and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts) are benefiting from the growth because they have received the largest increase in volunteers between 1989 and 2006. Nearly 24.6 percent of all adult volunteers serve through such organizations, a 63 percent increase since 1989. The biggest percentage of volunteers serves through religious organizations, although the proportion of Americans contributing time to those groups has decreased slightly, from 37.4 percent to 35.5 percent, since 1989.

    Noting that volunteering actually declined between 1974 and 1989 before rebounding, Grimm cited several reasons for heightened civic engagement today:

  • Teenagers are volunteering in greater numbers, in part, because of an increase in service-learning programs in schools and colleges that combine classroom study with community activity. Another reason may be a response to traumatic national events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and recent natural disasters.

  • Mid-life adults are more likely to have children in the home because Americans are delaying marriage and childbearing. The result is increased exposure to volunteering opportunities connected to their children’s school and extracurricular activities.

  • Older Americans are living longer, are better educated, and more financially secure – creating an increased desire for them to remain active and seek ways to give back to communities.
  • After another glance, this result can be partially and uneasily reconciled with Putnam's thesis of declining social capital. First, Putnam focused on a wide range of behaviors beyond volunteerism, which this report doesn't cover. Second, this report still shows a volunteering gap among Gen X-ers like myself, which prompted Putnam's book in the first place. Third, describing the growth of teenage participation in these kind of activities as "volunteerism" stretches the meaning of the word a bit, since "service-learning programs" are often mandated at the high school level (that said, the growth of volunteerism at the high school level might also be a function of market pressures -- you want to get into a good college,you need to demonstrate volunteerism).

    One question I'm curious about: these service programs have been in place for quite some time now. Does anyone know if hard data exists showing that participation in them triggers a life-long pattern of volunteerism?

    posted by Dan on 12.05.06 at 09:01 AM


    I don't have hard data, but I do know that there's a huge amount of volunteering done by my (college) students, who seem to have adopted it as a way of lfe perhaps after doing it in a required way in high school. It's just assumed that volunteerng is something people do.

    posted by: Beth on 12.05.06 at 09:01 AM [permalink]

    I don't know about hard research, but in my Rolodex are about 100 Boy Scout leaders with an average of about 35 years of adult service, usually following youth participation, and many being Eagle Scouts. Sort of gets in your blood (and most of those men and women are also active in other community and religious service).

    I would make the same observation about thsoe active in religious groups.

    I think there is a genuine increase in youth volunteerism, who can understand generational swings?

    There has been much reporting lately about a decline in fraternal type groups, Masons, Elks, etc. that have traditionally been very strong on community service - maybe it is the "joining" part that is declining.

    And veterans organizations have played major roles in community service since the 50s, but the bulk of membership is literally dying off.

    posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 12.05.06 at 09:01 AM [permalink]

    Maybe folks read "Bowling Alone." Oren calls that a self-disconfirming theory.

    posted by: Marcus on 12.05.06 at 09:01 AM [permalink]

    I'm very familiar with teenage volunteerism, having been part of nonprofits where teen volunteers showed up. In nearly all cases I'm familiar with, there was an academic basis:

    * Volunteering was a mandatory part of a school program.

    * Volunteering was an optional part of a school program, or could be substituted for some other requirement.

    * Volunteer work in a particular field was a prerequisite (or otherwise useful) for gaining admission to a college program in a particular discipline.

    I don't wish to be entirely cynical: young people who want to be teachers, for example, often would like to volunteer for classroom aide work, and a school program is sometimes the only easy conduit to such work. But it's not like young people are wandering the street, looking for ways to be useful!

    Another example is your local Friends of the Library. Generally, FOTL organizations are not short of volunteers; but the middle-aged volunteers of yore are mainly missing, as they've other things to do; most of the volunteers are quite elderly. As I am middle aged and still hale, I volunteer for the Friends twice a year at their book sales: to load and unload the heavy boxes of books that the old sweethearts can't handle on their own. Me -- and a couple of teenagers who are fulfilling their voluntarism requirements from the local high school!

    posted by: Bob Dobbs on 12.05.06 at 09:01 AM [permalink]

    I have never read Bowling Alone, but for some reason, the liberal Political Science professors (is that a redundancy?) seem to mention it a lot.

    I wonder why that is...

    posted by: Aakash on 12.05.06 at 09:01 AM [permalink]

    When I joined my masonic lodge in 1995, I was half that year's new membership. This year, we have 20 new members, and 12 new members each last year and the year before -- and almost all of them under 40 years old.

    posted by: jon on 12.05.06 at 09:01 AM [permalink]

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