The Graying of Volunteers: We Are Back for Your Revolution

Boomer-TutorWho are these people who are saying, “Just ask me and I’ll sign up”?

We are Boomers.

Why are we ready to sign up?

We were the volunteer revolutionaries of the 60’s and we are back.  The word revolution comes from the Latin revolutio, to “turn around,” and we want to see a ‘turn around” in our world.

Why do we want to see a turn around?

We are grandparents.  We have children and grandchildren, and we are troubled about the world that they will grow up in.  And since most of you have the same concerns about the future of your world, we will join you if you just ask us.

There is no doubt about it, we are getting older.  The birthday cards that I receive often joke about our stage of life.

  • “Back in my day, there were nine planets.”
  • “Growing old is great — considering the alternative.”
  • “Inside every old person is a younger person wondering what the heck happened.”
  • You’ve changed your mantra from “don’t trust anyone over 30,” to “can we trust anyone under 30?”

But at this life stage of  retirement we are a growing, energetic and resourceful huge group of activists who are ready to change the world again.  The passion of the 60’s has come back—in droves. During the turbulent 60’s Boomers volunteered in the movements that changed the world. Many in my generation joined the Peace Corps, protested injustices, and formed the core of activists in the civil rights movement, peace movement, and the women’s liberation movement.  And our mantra in the 60’s was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”  And now 60 is the new 30.  Look out world—to think that boomers are 30 again.  Are you ready for that?

There is a new trend in the Peace Corps called “The Graying of the Peace Corps.”  About seven percent of the nearly 9000 Peace Corps volunteers are over 50 years old. The Peace Corps is out to increase this percentage by stepping up its relationship with AARP in recruiting retired boomers because they are seeing the potential of this generation.

Peace Corps volunteer Keith Keyser has built a chicken house to employ women with HIV, helped start a school library, designed a medical records database, and is daily helping people where he lives in Kenya.  Not bad for a man pushing 70.  “Quite honestly,” he says, “if I go back to the States, what would I do? You know, if I come back to the States, I’d feel a little bit frivolous. Whereas here, there’s so much that needs to be done.”  He says that the Peace Corps gives him the ability to do those things. Maybe, he jokes, he’ll just spend the rest of his life as a volunteer. It’s the kind of passion the Peace Corps is hoping to harness in more older Americans.

But the graying of the volunteer numbers is not just in the Peace Corps.  Several years ago when we were  researching the 21st century trends in volunteerism for our book,  The New Breed, we concluded that the generational differences of Millennials, GenX, and Boomers had more to do with life stage than age, and Boomers were at the life stage that gave them the freedom from family responsibilities to volunteer.  Last year at the Points of Light Conference in Atlanta, I was leading a workshop with David Eisner, who is now the CEO of  “Repair the World.”   When we were setting up for the session, I told him that for the last five years I have observed the fulfillment of his prophetic words. In 2008 when Eisner gave his final speech as CEO of Corporation for National and Community Service, he claimed that volunteering among the retired boomers, the best educated, healthiest, wealthiest, and longest lived generation we’ve ever seen, will conservatively double in the next ten to twenty years.

We were the generation who heard President Kennedy say, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  And we did.  But something happened.  All of our passion lost its hope with a war in Viet Nam that dragged on and on, Watergate, and the assassinations of the Kennedy’s and Dr. Martin Luther King.  And when passion loses hope, it morphs into cynicism.  During the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s Boomers were labeled the “Me” generation. Our revolutionary vision was replaced by the drive to build bigger homes, climb corporate ladders, drive expensive foreign cars, and live the lives of the rich and famous.

But as we reach retirement age, we are celebrating this stage of our life with a revived fire in our bellies, the fire of the 60’s that burned in us.  All that cynicism seems to have taken a back seat, and we now have a new focus to address world concerns.  We are back with that old zeal to change the world.

In the past month I have had the opportunity to speak to leaders.  But not just ordinary leaders.  They were leaders of volunteers who are feeding the hungry, liberating slaves of human trafficking, moving victims of violence from crisis to confidence, providing housing for the homeless, making wishes come true, raising money for medical research and healing, tutoring, counseling, friending, and literally changing the world for good.  In Tyler, Texas, I met with over 100 leaders from 22 service organizations that had partnered with Green Acres Baptist Church to meet the needs of the people in East Texas. The next week I spent a whole day with the 61 Volunteer Administrators of Western New York,  and a week later I was delivering the opening keynote to 300 plus leaders at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration.  That is over 460 leaders who engage anywhere from 50 to 1500 volunteers each. If I take a conservative number of 200 volunteers for each of those 460 leaders, that’s 92,000 volunteers that are making a difference in just three areas of the U.S.   And joining these ranks of volunteers are a growing number of boomers.

Engaging Boomers is a huge win/win because you are also revolutionaries on a mission to turn around your world of injustice, poverty, abuse, illiteracy, homelessness, and human needs.  Are you taking advantage of this huge retired group of rebels from the 60s who have revived their passion to get involved? Not everyone can go to Africa and serve in the Peace Corps, but many will be an active and energetic volunteer for you because you have the same concern for the future of the world.  In the past few years the whole service world has become aware of all of these amazing retired boomers who are quietly saying, “Yeah, just ask me, and I’ll sign up because we are concerned about the future of the world for our children and grandchildren.”

When you add Boomers to your multi-generational volunteer workforce, you face 21st century leadership challenges in The New Breed volunteer culture.  To train your staff and leadership, I encourage you to download these articles, duplicate them and use them for discussion.  They are free for your use.

This entry was posted in Baby Boomers, Books, Gen X, Leadership, Millennials, The New Breed of Volunteer, Volunteer Engagement. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Graying of Volunteers: We Are Back for Your Revolution

  1. Dick Halsaver says:

    You haven’t mentioned the largest volunteer group in the US since I’ve been getting you great insight. That group is the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, all volunteers, numbering over 30,000. We pay dues to belong, have to buy regular USCG uniforms out of our own pocket, and devote hundreds of thousands of hours and lots of personal mileage to ensure recreational boating safety and other USCG missions (excluding direct law enforcement and military operations. Keeping that many people , a great number in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, involved is a challenge. Many have served over 40 years and more.

  2. Pingback: President’s Message June 2015 | Greater Richmond Association for Volunteer Administration

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