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Baby Boomers: Golden Age or Bursting Bubble?

2 December 2010 at 12:24 pm
Staff Reporter
Opinion | Are Baby Boomers going to be provide the Golden Age of volunteering or is it more like a 'bursting bubble? The Director of OzVPM Andy Fryar takes an alternate view to the expected explosion of Baby Boomer volunteers over the next few years.

Staff Reporter | 2 December 2010 at 12:24 pm


Baby Boomers: Golden Age or Bursting Bubble?
2 December 2010 at 12:24 pm

Are Baby Boomers going to be provide the Golden Age of volunteering or is it more like a 'bursting bubble? The Director of OzVPM (a organisation for Volunteer Program Managers) Andy Fryar takes an alternate view to the expected explosion of Baby Boomer volunteers over the next few years.

Much has been written of late about Bernard Salt's keynote address at the Australian National Volunteering Conference in Melbourne last month, where he boldly predicted that the Baby Boomer generation will bring forth a 'golden age of volunteering'.

While I hope like crazy that Mr Salt is right on the money, I really felt I needed to take a contrary point of view, for the simple fact that I don't believe that this 'golden age' is going to eventuate in quite the way that many people are anticipating.

Now in fairness to Salt, I wasn't actually at his address in Melbourne and so I have not heard first hand his thoughts and rationale. I have however had the opportunity to read several articles based on what he spoke about and in short, as I understand his argument (and the argument of others) we are to be blessed by an influx of articulate, fussy and difficult to manage volunteers as the Baby Boomer generation retire 'en masse'.

Mr Salt (if he has been quoted correctly) goes so far as to say "The problem for volunteer organisations will not be so much getting volunteers in the coming decade, it will be in managing their interests and egos!"

According to a 'Pro Bono Australia' news article about the topic;
"Speaking at the 13th National Conference on Volunteering, Salt says that according to the last census, the peak age for volunteering in Australia is 65 -79 – with 24% of people in this age bracket volunteering. Salt says that over the next decade, this age group is set to blow out by 800,000 – this means there will be an extra 200,000 people volunteering.
With the average retirement age in Australia at 58, and the average life expectancy hitting 82, there is now a 20 year gap between the retirement and death, something Salt refers to as the ‘sweet spot’ of volunteering."
(Source: Pro Bono Australia News 27/10/10)

Now for the sake of volunteerism I really want to believe that this will eventuate, and I even understand how this argument makes sense if you place your hopes purely in statistical population data.

However there are several key factors that have not been factored into the above argument, and these are critical issues which I believe will actually result in the Baby Boomer generation not being the 'White Knights' of the volunteering world – or at least not to the levels that will be required.

Let's take a look at some of these:

1. Baby Boomers already Volunteer!

Whenever I hear arguments which essentially cry out that the "Baby Boomer Cavalry Are Coming", I cringe and wonder what people think the Baby Boomer generation have been doing for the last 40 odd years!

What it appears that the 'Golden Age' theory really supposes is that Baby Boomers have largely been hard workers all of their lives, have had no time for volunteering and in retirement will turn 'en masse' to volunteering pursuits. While I am sure that this may be true for a small percentage, the vast majority will simply continue with whatever volunteering they have already been doing, or at best possibly extend the amount of time they give to their existing causes. Let's make no mistake, ABS Statistics have always told us that the majority of volunteers are either in part time of full time work, and up until now this has included our already busy Boomers. In short, I don't believe there will suddenly be hundreds of thousands of extra sets of hands looking for new opportunities.

An alternative scenario which is seldom discussed but requires consideration may in fact see Boomers leave their existing volunteer commitments in retirement to seek other types of post work leisure pursuits.

2. Baby Boomers will Volunteer Differently

One point I totally agree with is the fact that many Baby Boomers will volunteer in different ways. This in nothing new, as Baby Boomer volunteers have for many years been demanding and had higher expectations of the volunteer experience than previous generations.

In many ways, they have already been the catalyst for many volunteer involving agencies to create more up-to-date volunteer management systems, and there is much anecdotal evidence that suggests those agencies who cannot meet the rising demands of the Boomers are the ones not retaining their services.]

Should the 'golden age' theory be correct, the problem facing the voluntary sector won't be availability, but rather sustainability, as so many volunteer programs have been reluctant to pour additional resources into better equipping their volunteer management abilities and still operate on antiquated models of volunteer management that assume volunteers will be happy to sign up for life and undertake peripheral and repetitive volunteering activities.]

Should the 'golden age' theory be wrong, there will be even fewer volunteers to go around, and those agencies who are able to find the right mix of cutting edge, short term, rewarding and episodic volunteering will be the ones that survive – literally.

3. Baby Boomers – Differing Motivations

Like Generations X and Y, the Boomers bring some different motivations to the table for wanting to undertake volunteering. Unlike the socially conscious silent generation, the technology savvy Boomers are less likely to volunteer in order to meet new people or extend their social networks (which have been two big motivators over the years). They have far more opportunities to find and nurture this relationship building using social media and other online services. This again will pose challenges to volunteer involving agencies as they seek to find new and attractive volunteer roles for Boomer volunteers.

4. We have an impending skilled worker shortage in this country

Here's the big one! A few years ago I was introduced to some statistical information via Adelaide University which indicated that over the next few years we will begin to truly feel the pinch of having more skilled jobs that need filling in this country, than we will have available workers. While this is in part being driven by the very same trend (retirement of boomers) that suggests a greater availability of retirees for volunteering, this trend will not simply go away quietly.

We have already seen in the last few years that the retirement age for Australian workers has been raised by two years to keep the Boomer generation in the workforce for longer as employers and the government continue to struggle to attract more young people or skilled overseas workers to the workforce to meet the anticipated shortage.

Couple this with the fact that many Boomers are ill prepared for retirement and finding that their super savings are not what they thought they might be and we have an impending crisis!

So be prepared for a consolidated and coordinated approach by government and employers to keep the Baby Boomer generation working well into their 70's and make no mistake, this will have a direct impact upon volunteering and available volunteer numbers.

5. Retirement is not always what it is cracked up to be!

Another problem with the 'golden age' theory is that it idealistically seems to assume those who retire shall be released into an obligation free social life, where filling their days with meaningful roles is going to be a struggle. The truth is (and this dovetails into number 4 above), that in addition to Boomers working for longer, there is an increased pressure to get younger people, men and women, into the paid workforce.

For those Boomers who do retire, the 'sandwich' generation becomes an increasing reality. Stuck between caring for grandchildren, ageing parents (and possible part time work), the time to volunteer will be minimal.

6. The Need is NOW and the Need is Growing!

The voluntary sector is reaching crisis point!

In recent years there has actually been an increase in the number of volunteers required by many agencies, as greater levels of service are required and funding via other sources cut. This means that volunteer involving organisations don't simply need to replace an ageing workforce with new bodies – they actually have to recruit even more volunteers than they have ever had before!

This was reflected as recent as last week by 'The State of Volunteering' report which was released by Volunteering Tasmania, which indicated that on the Apple Isle alone, three in four groups already need more volunteers.

7. The Proof is in the Empty Pudding!

The first Boomers started reaching 60 and retirement age for many about 5 years ago now. To my knowledge, the anticipated 'bulge' of retirees are not streaming out of the woodwork as anticipated.

Based purely on the vast numbers of Boomers, we should by now be seeing some significant shifts in volunteering trends. Now I'm not a demographer, but I do work in and mix in the volunteer management field on a daily basis – and I for one am not seeing this occur.

While we can hypothesize about the future and the likely impact of Boomer volunteers reaching retirement age in great numbers, I think that only time will tell just what the state of play will be in regards to this generation and their post work volunteering habits.

  • Three things are certain.
  • There are lots of them
  • They will volunteer in different ways and be more demanding
  • Volunteering is changing

My personal warning to all volunteer involving organisations is to remain vigilant in your practices and continue to find new and innovative ways to engage volunteers, no matter who they are or what age group they fall into.

Sadly, this promised 'saviour' of the volunteer movement has already caused more harm than good as I believe many volunteer programs have simply been treading water and waiting for this influx to occur to solve their dwindling volunteer stocks, instead of pro-actively creating new volunteering environments in which activity can flourish.

There is no room any longer for a 'one size fits all' approach and there is no more time to wait.

Andy Fryar is the Director of OzVPM (a organisation for Volunteer Program Managers)

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