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Volunteering down during the recession, but young people still lead the way

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 31, 2009 - Last week, I posted an interview with the editors of a new book about engaging young people. My intention was to shift the focus elsewhere early this week. But then came along this interesting study by the National Conference on Citizenship showing that volunteering has dipped during the economic downturn.

More specifically, the group’s annual America’s Civic Health Index, billed as the state of civic engagement in America, revealed that 72 percent of people who took part in the national survey said they cut back on time spent volunteering, participating in groups and doing other civic activities in the past year.

Those are somewhat surprising results, as it would seem that more people out of jobs would mean more people donating their time. Then again, when times are tight, people might view hours spent at a town hall meeting as hours that they could be spending searching for jobs or working overtime.

The report's breakdown by age group is also telling. People between the ages of 15 and 29 had the highest volunteer rate (43 percent), while their parents in the Baby Boom generation had the lowest rate (35 percent). Still, far more young people surveyed said they decreased their civic participation over the past year than increased it. And the under-30 set lagged behind in material contributions such as providing food, money or shelter, perhaps not surprising given their relative lack of resources compared with people in other age groups.

As the report notes, “Millennials may have more opportunities for formal volunteering than Boomers do (e.g., through high school or university), but less access to disposable income, as a significant portion of Millennials are currently unemployed or going to school.” Young people, it added, are often seeking a chance to keep up or increase their skill levels as they complete their education and find themselves going on the job market. So there you have it.

The report also found that young people who use social networking sites for civic purposes -- say, to rally support for a political cause -- are far more likely to actively engage in civic participation in their communities. Not earth-shattering news there.

It's not just online networking but church involvement and interaction with friends that "can have a significant impact in countering the negative effect of the current economic downturn on civic engagement," the report notes. Or, more cutely put by the NCC's executive director in its press release, “God, friends, and Facebook provide a civic safety net."