Our recent research showed that volunteering among young people (16-24) has doubled over the last decade. In 2003, around 14% of young people had volunteered in the last 3 months and by 2013 this figured has reached 32% in our polling. Indeed, as recently as 2010 our data showed that only 16% were giving their time and after that we saw an almost continuous rise.
So what is causing this rise and what does it mean for young people and society?
First, a word of caution. It is very difficult to prove cause and effect. In other words, we can’t say any specific activity led to the rise in volunteering, because we can’t ask people who now say they are volunteering why they didn’t volunteer a decade ago.
Possible reasons include:
- A lot of money has been spent by the government encouraging youth volunteering. In particular, the V programme was the recipient of tens of millions of pounds in government funds
- Schools are increasing their emphasis on volunteering, encouraged both by the PHSE (personal, health and social education) curriculum and the work of a number of charities in encouraging giving and volunteering in schools
- The competition for university places has put increased emphasis on personal statements and the need to show a strong, rounded CV. Volunteering through formal programmes like Duke of Edinburgh and through less formal programmes in school, with sports clubs and the like, all play their part
- Formal university programmes for volunteering have also increased the motives for giving your time. Many universities, like the University of Manchester, now have a volunteering programme which counts towards final degree assessments. Oxford University awards half-blues for volunteering and citizenship activities
- The Olympics may also have played a role both before and after August 2012. I put it like that because much of the rise in volunteering took place before the Olympics and so it’s not possible to say that the event itself was the stimulant, but the build-up could have been
- It’s also worth saying that the rise in our figures could have been down to people saying they are volunteering more, even if they actually aren’t. There is a plethora of voices (see all of the above) saying that volunteering is a good thing, so we shouldn’t be surprised if some people are tempted to say they volunteer when they don’t, or say they volunteer more often than they actually do
So if these are some of the reasons why volunteering might be rising, what are the implications for young people and the rest of society?
It is interesting to imagine what volunteering overall might be like 20 or 30 years from now if the high levels of volunteering among that cohort are maintained. The overall levels of volunteering in society will increase, with resulting benefits for both the volunteers and those they help. Indeed, if this scenario of young people being the volunteering powerhouse continues, will we begin to see older people as the volunteering backsliders? Will retired people be seen as the group who do the least for society, not the most as at present? It’s an intriguing possibility.
There is a gloomier scenario. The current generation of volunteers may have grown used to a higher level of incentives to give up their time. So will the current teenagers and twenty-somethings still volunteer in their thirties when there is no Duke of Edinburgh or personal statement motive, nor any Olympics euphoria to spur them on? If a surge in volunteering depends on sporting triumphs or hosting world class sports events, we really could be in trouble.
In the short term, the task is rather different. We need to make sure that the growth in volunteering among young people is maintained. We do need to try and understand better what is driving the growth in volunteering and do more of it. Crucially, we need to make sure that young people have a rich and positive experience of volunteering that means they will continue to give their time for the rest of their lives.
Did you find this youthful? Or does it not fit with your data-day opinion? Leave us a comment below.