Volunteering is an important aspect of Canadian life and our economy. According to the 2007 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (CSGVP), almost 12.5 million Canadians, or 46% of the population over the age of 15, volunteered in 2007, contributing over 2.1 billion volunteer hours, equivalent to almost 1.1 million full-time jobs.9
There are a number of social and economic characteristics that distinguish those who are more likely to volunteer from those who are less likely. One of the most important influences on volunteering in Canada is age. In general, the likelihood of volunteering tends to decrease with age, while the number of hours volunteered tends to increase. In 2007, seniors 65 years and older were least likely to volunteer (36%), while young adults aged 15 to 24 were the most likely (58%). Despite their lower rate of volunteering, seniors aged 65+ gave more hours on average than any other age cohort, with an average of 218 hours annually compared to 15 to 24 year olds who volunteered an average of 138 hours annually.10
Source: Statistics Canada, Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating, 2007, Special Source Tabulation.
Given their high levels of involvement, seniors are more likely than other age groups to be "top volunteers", who are defined as the 25% of people who volunteered 171 hours or more annually and accounted for 78% of all volunteer hours.11 In 2007, of seniors who volunteered, 36% of younger seniors (aged 65 to 74) and 33% of older seniors (75+) were top volunteers, the highest of all age categories. 12 For boomers who volunteered, 32% of older boomers (aged 55 to 64) and 26% of younger boomers (aged 45 to 54) were top volunteers.
Certain characteristics increase the likelihood that seniors will volunteer. Factors such as higher levels of education, attending religious services more frequently, and having a vehicle and a driver's license all increase the likelihood that seniors will volunteer their time.13 Some research has also identified that the length of time an individual has resided in their community also influences the likelihood of volunteering, with younger seniors living in their communities for less than one year being the most likely to volunteer. 14 One possible explanation for this could be that younger seniors are going through important life transitions, such as moving out of their ‘family' homes, and volunteering may help establish social networks in their new location.
Seniors tend to concentrate their volunteer activities in several key areas. In 2007, seniors gave more hours on average to religious organizations, hospitals and social services organizations than other age groups. Seniors also spend considerable time carrying out office work, providing health care and support and canvassing.
Analysis of 2007 CSGVP data found many seniors are strongly motivated to volunteer for civic and personal reasons, with 95% of seniors indicating that making a contribution to their community was the most important reason they decided to volunteer. Volunteering also motivates seniors to build their social networks; with 56% of older seniors (aged 75+) and 52% of younger seniors (aged 65 to 74) indicating they volunteered because their friends volunteered, while 58% of older seniors and 55% of younger seniors volunteered to network and meet people. Many seniors also desired to use their skills and experience, with 83% of older seniors (aged 75+) and 77% of younger seniors (aged 65 to 74) citing this motivation.
It should be noted however, that not all volunteers identify their community and family activities as volunteering but may instead view these activities as part of being a responsible or helpful community and family member. This could also lead to certain activities being under-represented in volunteer related data and research.
In 2007, over two-thirds of volunteers across Canada reported that volunteering had provided them with interpersonal skills, such as understanding and motivating people, or being able to handle difficult situations. Almost half (45%) indicated that they acquired communication skills, 39% obtained organizational or managerial skills, and 34% reported increased knowledge about specific subjects such as health, women's or political issues, criminal justice, or the environment.
In addition to the skills that can be acquired through volunteering, there are other benefits to volunteering that facilitate positive and active aging. Research suggests that decreased social activity and loss of social networks may contribute to isolation and dependency. The community connectedness achieved from volunteering deepens social networks, improves access to information and support, and reduces the likelihood of social isolation. Volunteering is also linked to improved quality of life, increased physical activity, and lower mortality rates. It enhances life satisfaction and well-being, contributes to self-confidence and personal growth, and provides a sense of purpose by providing individuals with the opportunity to contribute to their communities and to society.15 Volunteering also helps seniors navigate major life transitions, such as retirement or the death of a spouse or loved one.
Despite seniors' high levels of engagement, there are a number of barriers that inhibit seniors' ability to volunteer. For example, according to the 2007 CSGVP, lack of time, inability to make a long-term commitment and a preference for giving money instead of time were three of the most cited reasons for not volunteering. Although these hold true across various age groups, research has shown that seniors also report other, more age-specific barriers to their involvement. Health problems and physical limitations restrict the ability of many seniors to volunteer, with 70% of older seniors (aged 75+) and 57% of younger seniors (aged 65 to 74) citing this barrier in 2007.16 Many seniors have contributed to their communities extensively throughout their lives and are more likely than younger generations to report having given enough time already. 17
Seniors are not only contributors, but are also recipients of volunteer services. Many seniors rely on volunteer programs and services for assistance and support.
As Canadians age they transition from providers of volunteer services to recipients of volunteer services. Approximately 21% of seniors receive informal help with domestic and outdoor work and home maintenance. Almost 28% are the recipients of emotional support. Another 21% received help with transportation or running errands, and approximately 11% were the recipients of teaching, coaching, or practical advice. Seniors also provide direct help and support to other seniors. One in 12 seniors looks after at least one of their contemporaries whose day-to-day activities are restricted by long-term disabilities or physical limitations.18
In addition to senior volunteers, it is important to consider the volunteering behaviour of baby boomers, the cohort of 10 million Canadians born between 1947-66. Baby boomers will leave the labour force in record numbers over the next 15 years. They will be the largest, best-educated, healthiest, most mobile and wealthiest cohort of seniors yet.19 Baby boomers, due to their sheer size, account for the greatest number of volunteers; however, they tend to have average rates of volunteer participation. 20 In the roundtable discussions, the National Seniors Council placed much emphasis on getting the views of participants on how to encourage boomers to volunteer.
Baby boomers exhibit unique characteristics and demonstrate different patterns of volunteering compared to their parents' generation making their future volunteering rates and behaviour uncertain. According to the findings of the 2007 CSGVP, baby boomers are more likely to demand stimulating volunteer experiences that respond to personal needs and interests, and seek opportunities to lead and direct projects.21 This cohort is also more likely to be "episodic" volunteers—taking on specific projects or assignments—rather than committing to one organization or structured volunteer activity over a prolonged period of time. 22
Baby boomers have identified a number of specific barriers that impede their ability to volunteer. According to the 2007 CSGVP, one of the main reasons given by baby boomers for not volunteering more is not having enough time, with 77% of shadow boomers (age 45 to 54) and 68% of older boomers (age 55 to 64) citing this barrier.23 Many baby boomers are faced with caring for their aging parents while supporting their own children, which limits their ability to engage in volunteer activities. Many baby boomers are working longer hours or transitioning into part-time work as opposed to full retirement, making it more difficult to find time to volunteer.
It is anticipated that a void will be left as the current cohort of seniors age and may be unable to continue volunteering in the same way or at the same rate as they have in the past. In the future, religious appeals for volunteering may not be as successful because baby boomers are less likely to volunteer out of a sense of duty, obligation or religious commitment, as compared to the senior cohort. The potential for boomers to step into the volunteer roles of health care providers, bookkeepers, office workers and administrators is also questionable. Furthermore, with age and health challenges, current seniors will shift from significant participation as volunteers to users of not-for-profit services, creating a need for greater numbers of volunteers.
To address this issue it is important to find ways to support the current cohort of seniors to continue to volunteer. At the same time, baby boomers represent an extremely large cohort of potential volunteers and attention is turning to the increasingly urgent question of how to encourage retiring baby boomers to volunteer.