Volunteering – what’s in it for older people?

I have recently been involved in a consultation exercise to discuss the content of the 2018 Census. It seems a long way off, but work is starting in earnest. I was on the look-out for topics of interest to Age Concern and noted that one of the proposals was to delete the “activities” questions, which asks about unpaid work – caring work and voluntary work for organisations. I was in the camp of keeping these questions in the census and I was not alone. What the decisions will be remains to be seen.

But it got me thinking about volunteering and older people. We might think that this group has the time to volunteer and can afford to work without pay, but what do we know about their motivations?

First, the statistics. We know from the General Social Survey1 (2012)1 that 31% of New Zealanders (about the same for men and women) undertook some formal volunteer work (for a group or an organisation) in the four weeks previous to the survey. People aged 65-74 had the highest rate (38%), followed by people aged 45-54 (34%) and people 75 plus (31%). The rates were lower for people under 45.

The main purpose of volunteering is to meet the needs of non-profit and public organisations which cannot afford paid staff. But what about individual motivations? Why do people volunteer and do their reasons differ by age group? It is an end in itself or a means towards an end? Can volunteering be a “win-win” activity, producing positive outcomes for both the recipients of the service and the volunteers themselves?

Young people are often encouraged to volunteer as a way to gain skills and experience which will help them to get paid work. On a high-minded plane, it is a way to produce more productive and responsible citizens. For older people, the paid work motivation is less likely to apply, but perhaps volunteering can contribute to productive/active ageing.

The outcomes of a volunteering programme for older people in the USA were reported as: moving on to another volunteering position; starting an educational programme or community activity; and, for a few, starting a new job. 2

It seems clear that volunteering can provide older people with pathways to other social, and civic activities. When asked, in the US research, how volunteering helped them in their new involvements, 71% said it increased confidence, 76% said it helped them to recognise the importance of organised activities – “good to get out of the house and have a daily structure”- and more than 40% said they made social connections that led to new involvements.

I have not found any comparable New Zealand research, but, looking at the literature it seems that older people are frequently motivated by altruistic and humanitarian values and tend to have a stronger service orientation than their younger counterparts. This links with ideas about “giving back,” “leaving a legacy,” and being “generative” that are said to characterise older people’s outlook on life. Younger volunteers are more likely to be motivated by career development and have a stronger orientation toward social relationship building. Terms applicable for their volunteering behaviour are “building capacity,” “developing citizenship,” “forming identity,” and “increasing skills”.

These concepts, derived from human development theory, could be useful for organisations trying to recruit, and especially to retain, volunteers from different age groups. Is volunteering an “end” for older adults and a “means” for younger adults? Or is this too simplistic? The authors I have quoted conclude that “more assertive attempts to recruit older adults as volunteers, especially more disconnected older adults, may lead to more social engagement and may promote healthy aging”. It is certainly a thought.


1 Statistics New Zealand’s General Social Survey (NZGSS) provides information on the well-being of New Zealanders. It covers a wide range of social and economic outcomes and looks at how well-being is distributed across different groups. It is based on a sample of the NZ population.

2 Morrow-Howell, N., Lee, Y., McCrary, S. and McBride, A. (2014) Volunteering as a Pathway to Productive and Social Engagement Among Older Adults. Health Education and Behavior, vol. 41 no. 1, suppl. 84S-90S.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
This entry was posted in Paid and unpaid work (includes volunteering). Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s