Tune us in – turn us on!

Volunteering is the new ‘Woodstock’.

We Canadians who are over 50 are a fortunate and relatively fortune-laden generation. Thanks to scientific and medical advances, new technologies and our own efforts, we live longer than ever before and do so with greater vitality. Some of us (would that I was one) do so with stronger financial resources and more spare time as well. We are certainly the most educated cadre of all. And now, many of us are nearing the culmination of our careers.

We’re also one of the most socially conscious and activist generations, or, at least, we have been. At the same time, our population, economies, societies and politics have grown complex, often to the extent that it’s difficult to keep track.

With the ‘boomer’ demographics looming, civil society – that is, the not-for-profit and charitable sector – in our communities is both salivating and gnashing its teeth. Causes from the arts to athletics, poverty to privacy, health care to homelessness, immigrant support to illness eradication, wildlife to welfare, from climate change to child poverty, and on and on need us and want us but they are not entirely sure how best to engage us.

Volunteering is the new ‘Woodstock’. We CAN change the world – again!

After all, those of us over 50 come from a self-established tradition of activism, community awareness and social conscience that truly did change the world in many ways. Now that the chicks have left the nest and the workplace has been worked, we can also add experience, perspective and expertise.

Many of us have volunteered for some time now and some are already committed to their cause of choice. That is wonderful – for both doers and doees. The 2004 Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participation found that 11 per cent of Canadians contributed 77per cent of all volunteer hours and that those who contribute the most hours tend to be seniors over 65.

But Norah McClintock in Understanding Canadian Volunteers found a decline in the number of Canadians who volunteer. Just over 6.5 million volunteered in 2000, compared to nearly 7.5 million in 1997. And a recent national poll conducted by Decima Research for Investors Group tells us that 70 per cent of baby boomers plan to spend some or a lot of their time doing volunteer work in retirement, but only 48 per cent of retired Canadians today report that they are.

So why are older volunteers not coming out of the woodwork? A 2003 Canadian Centre for Philanthropy study found that 51 per cent are concerned with the time commitment involved, 38 per cent that the volunteer work they are presented with is not meaningful, another 38 per cent because it restricts their ability to travel, 27 per cent because volunteer work is not challenging for them, 24 per cent because it intrudes in their life, 23 percent due to a lack of information, 15 per cent because of confusion about their role, 11 per cent because of complex regulations and ‘red tape’, 10 per cent because of the emotional commitment , eight per cent because of personal health limitations, and seven per cent because of the cost of volunteering. The messages are clear. Older volunteers need to be asked and feel that what they are asked to do is worth doing.