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Don't underestimate the baby boomer volunteers

By Melanie Oppenheimer - posted Monday, 22 September 2008

The long summer of the baby boomer will inevitably include volunteering, and perhaps once and for all the stereotype of Lady Bountiful - that elderly woman dispensing her largesse and good deeds - will be permanently laid to rest. With 25 per cent of the Australian population over the age of 65 by 2040, the way baby boomers “do” volunteering will be quite different. Better health outcomes, the “social dimensions of ageing”, and with baby boomers refusing to retire gracefully, volunteering will become a key issue. Governments and the non-profit sector need to be prepared.

The assumption today that volunteering is the “workplace” or “playground” for older members of our society is a relatively recent phenomenon. As I outlined in my new book Volunteering. Why we can’t survive without it (UNSW Press, 2008) it was only in the late 1980s and 1990s when both organisations and governments began to see older people as a “lucrative” cohort of volunteers.

An Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Family Survey published in 1992 confirmed the substantial contribution older Australians made to the community through their informal assistance to family members including childcare, crisis support and home maintenance.


The challenges brought by the “greying” of Australia and the supposed economic and social burden that this would place on future generations became an increased focus of interest.

In 1995, the Consultative Committee on Ageing (CCOA), a group advising the New South Wales government, ran a series of workshops to look at the contribution of older people.

The report, Volunteering and Older People, concluded that despite assumptions to the contrary more older Australians volunteered or gave care than received it; and that volunteering enhanced the ageing process through providing social interaction, a sense of achievement and belonging, and by keeping active. However the report also concluded that better government support and infrastructure was required, as well as better communication and networking between governments and the voluntary sector itself.

The West Australian government and Judy Esmond conducted a research project “to identify the “motivators and barriers” to volunteering and strategies to encourage Baby Boomers to volunteer”. Under the acronym “Boomnet” (Boomers Organised Openness Meaningful Needs Education and Time) the report concluded that the size of the baby boomers alone meant that the non-profit sector would experience a surge in volunteer numbers in years to come.

However, importantly, the baby boomers’ expectations, needs and views in regard to volunteering were different to previous generations. Baby boomers may not volunteer as their forebears did. That’s not to say they will not volunteer but that they will volunteer differently. Baby boomers are generally more likely to be looking for fulfilling roles related to their skills or interests when they volunteer their labour.

They want flexibility and more project volunteering rather than a commitment with no end in sight. They want less regulation and few impediments to volunteer, less red-tape and bureaucracy. They also want better volunteer management and better jobs, more challenges in their volunteering rather than simple service delivery or stuffing envelopes.


Baby boomers may also have other priorities such as travel, and research on the impact of volunteering and grey nomads (people aged over 50 caravanning around Australia) is underway. They may also have other family commitments such as grand parenting and caring for elderly parents. Tellingly, in terms of ethnic diversity, the Boomnet report found, among other things, that Indigenous and ethnic communities were involved in volunteering but often it went unrecorded because of its informal nature.

Over the past ten years, there has been a huge debate about the costs of an ageing population. As a result, some researchers attempted to give an economic value to the caring and volunteering activities of older people. A recent study by de Vaus revealed that Australians aged over 65 years contribute almost $39 billion per year in unpaid caring and volunteer work. If one includes those aged between 55-64, the contribution increases to $74.5 billion per annum.

Jeni Warburton argued that older volunteers are an important resource and there is increasing research to suggest that volunteering can help with healthy and productive ageing. Indeed older Australians who volunteer tend to have better psychological health, higher life satisfaction and even longer lives. This will appeal to baby boomers who are looking for personal and spiritual fulfilment through their volunteering.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Melanie Oppenheimer is an Australian historian in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney and author of Volunteering: How we can't survive without it (UNSW Press, 2008).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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