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New Strategies to Attract Baby Boomer Volunteers

(July 2, 2004)  Baby boomers have the promise of becoming a social resource of unparalleled proportions, but charities face special challenges in trying to reach them, according to a new report by the Harvard School of Public Health-MetLife Foundation Initiative on Retirement and Civic Engagement.

Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement takes an in-depth look at the implications baby boomers can have on society. During the boom years of 1946 to 1964, approximately 77 million babies were born in the United States. In 2011, the oldest will turn 65, and, on average, can expect to live to 83.

Despite their lengthened life spans, boomers are reported to have done less than other age groups by every measure of civic engagement, including rates of voting and joining community groups. In order to expand the contributions of boomers in civic life, the report emphasizes several strategies for the charitable sector to consider in attracting boomer volunteers to its causes:

  • Using new language, imagery and stories in order to help people reconsider the role and value of elders. Words such as "work," "retirement," "volunteer" and all of the language related to aging (e.g., "seniors") oversimplify a complex reality and may serve as barriers to change. The aging boomer will be neither the "eternally active" senior nor the frail, dependent elder.
  • Creating new mediating institutions may be needed to handle recruitment, training and referral of boomers. Most charities will not have the resources for professional volunteer management, so national nonprofits in specific areas should take the lead in helping local charities identify and develop volunteer opportunities.
  • Offering a broad set of options that allow people to engage in different ways at different times and at different levels of commitment. These options should range from one-time or episodic opportunities that enable boomers to test the waters and shop around to sustained and intensive commitments.
  • Community-based initiatives that bridge the generations should receive special attention. These programs build community by integrating the old with the young, passing knowledge and experience to future generations and re-enforcing the value of people of all ages.

The report also brings attention to the little-known fact that more people volunteer in mid-life rather than in retirement. Volunteering in this peak period is associated with having more, rather than fewer, obligations and commitments. On the other hand, individuals who do volunteer during their early years of retirement do so with greater frequency than mid-life volunteers.

The report will serve as the basis for the Harvard School of Public Health's national media movement that will stimulate a public dialogue about the meaning and purpose of the later years, work with the entertainment and advertising industries to rethink images of aging, encourage journalists to cover aging in new ways and motivate boomers to volunteer.

To receive a copy of Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement, members may contact the Center for Health Communication at Harvard School of Public Health by phone (617/432-1038) or email ( The report can also be found at

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