UK charities recently celebrated Volunteers Week, which celebrates the contribution of the over 14 million Brits who regularly help out through an organisation or club, plus the many more volunteering informally. I’ve tended to think of volunteers as fresh-faced and wrinkle-free, perhaps because of efforts to teach the value of civic action, or because volunteering is often linked to work experience — but it turns out that older people actually play a huge role. Two of the charities I interviewed for MissionBox on this topic said the average age of their volunteers was mid to late 60s; even at VSO, which sends experienced professionals to work in Africa and Asia, half of UK applicants are over 50.
NCVO, who are behind Volunteers Week, also published a blog about the barriers facing the “silver service” generation, looking at an even older cohort (and with a way better title than mine). While evidence suggests that older people may benefit most from volunteering — since it can counter isolation and offer a sense of purpose — the over-75s are much less likely to volunteer than their younger friends. Interestingly, it’s not just because of physical things like poor health or lack of transport, though these do play a role: cultural barriers, say NCVO, like feeling too old or assuming volunteering requires regular commitment and travel outside of home, are just as significant.
Such assumptions may not seem a big deal. But by 2033 nearly a quarter of our population will be 65 or over. That makes the potential value of older volunteers an estimated £15.7 billion (an increase of £5.3 billion from 2015), according to the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing. Ignoring retirees or failing to accommodate them with more flexible forms of volunteering would be a big loss to charities and clubs, and all those who depend on them.
Charities Aid Foundation echo this, and point out that supply isn’t meeting demand. Research last year found that over a third of those approaching retirement are worried they won’t get to use their skills in retirement, and nearly half want to make a difference in their community. But they don’t know how. So CAF is calling for a post-careers advice service to help them find opportunities, a service that would be available across the country, and could perhaps be accessed at local libraries. One more reason, then, to look after our public libraries for a little longer.