I recently finished tutoring for the first summer session at our community college. I’ve been volunteering there for the past three years, helping students with their essays and presentations, their applications to four-year schools, their resumes and cover letters for job openings.
Before this pandemic changed everyone’s plans, I already wasn’t planning to volunteer for the second summer session due to personal travel plans I’d made. But I’ll miss going to the college, helping the kids, and hanging out with the other volunteers. It got me thinking about volunteering, and how much it means to us retirees.
There are about a dozen volunteers in the writing center, a division of the Academic Support Center. There are over a hundred when you count those volunteering in the math center, in science and technology, and for ESL as conversation partners. So I have a lot of company, but not just here in New York, all across America as well. It turns out that America is one of the most generous nations in the world. According to figures from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, some 60 percent of Americans regularly engage in some kind of charitable activity, compared to an average of about 40 percent for other developed countries.
Another study, from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, found that Americans offer almost 8 billion hours a year volunteering for charitable causes, from church activities to political organizations to helping out neighbors and strangers. While Americans of all races and ages contribute both their money and time, retirees are the ones who reach out the most.
Retirees have the most opportunity to volunteer, since our time isn’t consumed by working or taking care of children. We have almost twice as much free time as working parents in their late 30s and early 40s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and we are looking for something to do with all that extra time. So while retirees comprise less than a third of the population, we account for 45 percent of all volunteering hours, Merrill Lynch found.
We also have the most money. Retirees have the lowest poverty rate among all age groups, and also have the most savings. As a group, we are sitting on more than four times the net worth of our children who are working and raising families. This explains why retirees account for 42 percent of the money donated to charity, according to Merrill Lynch.
As my own experience has shown, retirees find it fulfilling to volunteer; it gives us the feeling that we make a difference in the lives of others. Most volunteers report that helping others brings them more happiness than spending money on themselves. Retirees who are active in charities also exhibit a stronger sense of purpose and higher self-confidence, with lower reported rates of depression as well as lower blood pressure and lower mortality rates.
Volunteering is also a way to make social connections, offering retirees an opportunity to meet people with similar interests and values. Some 85 percent of retiree volunteers say they have developed new friendships through their volunteer activities. Personally, I’ve found a group of like-minded friends at the college. We sit around and talk shop, but we also talk about our families, our lives, our interests. We occasionally get together for coffee before or after a session, and I’ve found one fellow volunteer who likes to dance, and so my wife and I meet up with her and her husband once or twice a month to go dancing.
Speaking of my wife, she devotes most of her volunteer time to her church, and according to Merrill Lynch, that makes her more typical than me. About half of people who donate to charity contribute to a religious or spiritual organization, while 30 percent donate to relieve poverty, 25 percent to provide disaster aid and roughly 20 percent to educational institutions.
But it’s true that charity begins at home. While some people say that leaving an inheritance to their children is an important goal, today’s retirees are twice as likely to say it’s more important to help out family members in times of need instead of accumulating an estate for their children. Over 60 percent of parents have given some kind of financial support to their adult children. Others have extended a helping hand to parents, siblings, in-laws and grandchildren.
It may come as no surprise that women are more generous than men. They are more likely to give money and more likely to volunteer. They are also more likely to say they achieve happiness by giving to others rather than spending money on themselves, and define success in terms of helping others rather than accumulating wealth. Women give out of gratitude, not guilt. And because of their greater longevity, women also exercise control over the family inheritance. Today, about a third of charitable bequests are made by married couples. But almost half are made by women alone.
Before this pandemic began to spread, I got an email from the college. The writing coordinator said she understood that I wouldn’t be available due to my travel plans. But maybe I’d be around toward the end of the semester when things got busy. Would I be available to volunteer in November and December? So now I’m thinking, if things do get back to normal by then, maybe I could just help out during the crunch period.