Recently I took part in a debate on E-Volunteerism about trends in the way Generation Y (those individuals born between 1981 and 1995) is volunteering and how volunteer-involving organisations can adapt to engage Generation Y. Part of the discussion looked at whether Gen Y volunteered more episodically and whether they were more self-focused in their approach to volunteering.
It is really easy to slip into a way of talking about Generation Y that attributes all kinds of characteristics to the way they volunteer, when what we’re actually talking about is the latest evolution in volunteering and not the latest generation of volunteers. This distinction is really important because it changes it from being a debate between those who actively involve Gen Y volunteers to a wider debate about how as a sector we change and adapt with the times.
Good examples that demonstrate this distinction are:
- As employment markets change, so do approaches to volunteering
- As digital technology changes working environments (or human activity generally), so it changes volunteering
- As charities and social movements change and grow, so do the opportunities to get involved
A debate about how best to involve young people from the standpoint of how the world around us (starting with your local community) is operating today, is more fruitful than simply head scratching about what young people are like today. To be clear, if you work to understand how the world around us is functioning today, you’ll better understand what young people are like in the present.
More episodic volunteering?
There is, perhaps, more episodic volunteering nowadays. But this is due to the more episodic career paths we have now on the one hand, and the digital technology which has fragmented the world around us on the other, allowing us to look beyond our local communities. I remember when I worked in Guatemala how struck I was by the commitment many young people had to their local volunteering roles such as health promoters, teachers or church groups. But part of this was due to the reality of volunteering in small rural communities – this link with the local community was not as strong in the larger, urban capital of Guatemala City.
Are volunteers nowadays more self-focused?
Are young people more self-focused than any other age group? I don’t think so. Most people approach volunteering with a balance of personal and social motivations. For example, if a younger person is more likely to want to learn a skill and an older person is more likely to want to meet new people, these are both personal motivations. It doesn’t follow that either is necessarily any less likely to want to volunteer for a social motivation like being able to help others.
The phrase self-focused is quite ambiguous. Are we hinting at selfishness or do we mean self-interestedness? Both selfishness and enlightened self-interestedness is about looking after your own needs. The difference is whether you’re being mindful of the needs of others at the same time. Volunteering obviously fits in with the latter; it’s enlightened self-interest. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about people volunteering their time selfishly. As a result, it makes more sense to think about whether we really know how Gen Y express this need to help others (which can show us new ways of volunteering happening today), before we’re tempted to say whether they’re any more self-focused, self-interested or selfish than anyone else.
Not them and us, it’s all about us
It seemed to be me that engaging in a them and us debate, missed the bigger picture. Them, the volunteers. Them, the young people. Them, the more self-focused. Them, the episodically committed. It’s about us. Us, in a new working environment. Us, in a new way of communicating and sharing information. Us, wanting social change.
Sounds glib, but it really is all about us- all of us