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Will There Be Enough Volunteers?

For at least three decades, those of us who work in non-profit agencies dependent on volunteer labor have faced an uncomfortable decline. Organizations run by volunteers, from Rotary Clubs to the League of Women Voters, have watched their membership and contribution base grow smaller and smaller. Museums, zoos, nature centers, aquariums, and other such agencies have had to learn to “make do” with fewer and fewer volunteers. In many such institutions, volunteer recruitment is an on-going process, and some of the more affluent museums have opted to give up the battle and turn entirely to paid staff. Is the search for volunteers to be never-ending? Maybe not. Generational theorists give us hope for a rise in the spirit of volunteerism in the not-too-distant future.

The blame for the declining volunteer base is most often placed squarely on the shoulders of women. Women have traditionally constituted the larger portion of volunteers, and, since more and more women work outside the home, the connection seemed obvious. More women in the paid work force meant fewer women in the non-paid, or volunteer, work force. Volunteer recruiters responded to this logic by attempting to enlist the services of more men within their volunteer ranks. They offered working women more flexible volunteer hours and created cooperative ventures with companies and schools to offer incentives to business people and students who volunteered in their institutions. While these efforts are admirable, they haven’t solved the problem. Rather, an examination of and response to “generations theory” may hold the solution.

The Idealists

In 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe burst on the pop culture scene with the book Generations: The History of Americas Future. They proposed the theory that generational groups, or “cohorts,” move through America’s history, and, by extrapolation, her future in four cycles of repeated “attitudes and approaches to life.” The first of the groups that Strauss and Howe identify are the Idealists, those individuals who are born in a time of euphoria after a “secular crisis” such as war. The current Idealist generation is more commonly know as Boomers.

The Boomers were born between 1943 and 1960, and, as the new millennium gets underway, they are middle aged and approaching retirement. After World War II, the offspring of the ex-GI’s swelled the American population by a whopping 18.4%. The hospitals where they were born were over-crowded, as were their kindergarten classes a few years later. With Dr. Spock in hand, their parents allowed them to set the parameters of family life. Father Knows Best soon gave way to Leave it to Beaver.

The “every man for himself” attitude engendered by such competition created self-immersion, an impatient desire for self-satisfaction, and a weak sense of community, not exactly the recipe for strong volunteerism. Two interesting trends, however, seem to indicate that this generation may yet promise a ripe harvest for the volunteer recruiters who’ve tried, so far with mixed success, to reach them.

A poll by the American Association of Retired Persons concluded that 35% of Boomers who intended to work during their “retirement” years would do so for reasons of interest and enjoyment. Only 23% said they would need the extra income. According to the Christian Science Monitor, students 40 years old and over represent the fastest-growing population on college and graduate-school campuses — 11.2% of all those enrolled. They may start for work-related reasons, but often stay because they discover that they enjoy learning.

What a windfall for museums and other centers of informal learning! Perhaps renewed emphasis on the continuing self-satisfaction available for volunteers in such institutions will be just the enticement needed to attract some of the 79 million Boomers looking for a meaningful future!

The Reactives

The next generational group is identified by Strauss and Howe as Reactives. This group is born in an “awakening” era when society attempts to re-create itself It is a time of reexamination and creates a generation that is individualistic and self-centered. This generation today goes by many names. Strauss and Howe refer to them as the Thirteenth Generation, but they are more commonly known as Generation X. The introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 brought an end to the baby boom, and babies born during the next 20 years grew up taking care of themselves. The term “latch-key children” was invented for this generation as both their parents worked to support an increasingly materialistic life-style. The X’ers learned to be skeptical of long-term commitments as they saw the marriages and mergers of their parents fall apart. Volunteer recruiters have had success placing Gen X’ers on short-term projects with clearly defined goals.

One particular trend — the increasing diversification of the American population — offers even more promise for connecting Generation X’ers and informal learning environments such as museums, zoos, gardens, and science centers. During 1994, the Hispanic population in the U.S. grew by 3.5%. During the same year, the Asian and Pacific Islander population grew by 3.8%, the African-American population by 1.5%, and American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut by 1.5%. The Caucasian (White), non-Hispanic population increased only by 0.4%. Generation X’ers, more than any of their predecessors, are used to living and working in a culturally and ethnically diverse society. As museums and other such agencies attempt to reach new audiences, and to include new cultural and ethnic groups within their volunteer corps, it is this generation that will be most successful at working with these new groups.

The Civics

The best hope for increased numbers of volunteers lies perhaps with the generational cohort called the Civics by Strauss and Howe. As a reaction to the rebelliousness of the Reactive generation, parents of the Civics, as well as society in general, work hard to make sure that these children “fit in.” They grow up to be civic-minded and community oriented, the definition of a good volunteer!

Currently, there are two Civics generations from which to draw volunteers, the so-called GI Generation (age 76 and above) and the Millennial Generation (ages 18 and younger). For the first time in history, one generational cohort has lived long enough to influence their “twin” cohort. Museums that pair these groups in mentoring programs build volunteer programs that will succeed into the next decades.

The Adaptives

The final cohort identified by Strauss and Howe is called the Adaptive generation. They were raised during a secular crisis and view such crises with a mixture of romanticism and a sense of duty. Today’s Adaptives are sometimes called the Silent generation, although in their silence they worked non-violently for civil rights, looked for ways to stay connected, and grew up to be great philanthropists. Born between the GI Generation and the Boomers, the Silent Generation provided the communication bridge between the two. As volunteers, they are steadfast, creative workers. Another Adaptive generation is just being born, a boon, perhaps, to volunteer recruiters 20 years from now.

This theoretical model is, of course, just that — a theory. It concerns itself with the behavior of groups; therefore, individuals within groups may or may not conform to these generalized characteristics. With that in mind, generational theory’s best lesson for volunteer recruiters must be: one size no longer fits all. When planning volunteer programs, generational characteristics should be part of the recruitment package. Finding the right volunteer for every position should then be a little easier.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Will There Be Enough Volunteers?,” The Docent Educator 9.3 (Spring 2000): 4+.


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