The next generation of willing and ready volunteers: baby boomers

Enlisting even a fraction of them to volunteer would be a boon for the US.

John McCain and Barack Obama are highlighting different approaches to solving our nation's most pressing problems.

But one approach both candidates agree on is harnessing the power of America's people through community and national service. This is smart. Republicans and Democrats are both hungry for opportunities to serve and baby boomers are uniquely positioned to tackle tough challenges.

Although many think of community and national service as primarily a one- or two-year experience for young adults, that perception is becoming outdated. Our country holds a valuable resource in the form of the most highly skilled, well-educated, healthiest, and longest-living generation in our nation's history. And we need to take advantage of it.

The boomers are coming, all 77 million of them. Add them to the living members of the "silent" and "greatest generations," and this group of older Americans constitutes nearly 40 percent of the US population.

A new report, "More to Give," commissioned on the 50th anniversary of AARP, now with 40 million members, shows that Americans between the ages of 44 and 79 are healthy, free of care-giving commitments, and ready to increase their volunteer service after they retire.

More than 40 percent of the adults we surveyed expect to increase the amount of time they spend volunteering in the near future, and nearly the same number of retirees reported that they actually did so after they retired.

Providing ways for older Americans to serve their country is not only critical for the country but also for those who volunteer. A majority (55 percent) feel that their generation is leaving the world in worse condition than they inherited it, while only 20 percent say they feel their generation is leaving the world better off. It's a pessimism shared equally by older Americans from both political parties.

Boomers are expressing interest in mentoring and tutoring youths, helping the elderly remain independent, and serving in programs such as Meals on Wheels and the Peace Corps. And yet, 68 percent of non-volunteers feel they have not even been asked to serve.

Part of the answer is changing views of existing volunteer programs. Many people don't know that there is no upper age limit on volunteering for AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, or Senior Corps. Opportunities are out there. There is need for help in everything from education, to conservation, to health.

Education awards that boomers can earn and transfer to children or grandchildren score highest on the list of incentives to commit substantial time to volunteering. Legislation recently introduced by Sens. Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch include new opportunities for boomers and transferable financial education awards.

Beyond policy, a sense of well-being, greater purpose and self-esteem are all well known personal benefits of volunteering. Leading experts remind us that active engagement makes us happier and healthier, which could forestall moves into assisted living and nursing homes and the associated costs.

Enlisting even a fraction of the boomers who are interested in increasing their service could have a transformative effect for all those involved.

Our nation faces major problems, including a shortage of skilled workers and volunteers. But we have the greatest resource for addressing those problems: generations with a lifetime of experience to share. We must ensure that more boomers have opportunities to serve, understand how their service can meet important needs, and leave the world a better place.

John M. Bridgeland served as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and USA Freedom Corps. Harris L. Wofford was US Senator from Pennsylvania and an organizer of the Peace Corps. Both are coauthors, together with Robert Putnam, of a new report, "More to Give: Tapping the Talents of the Baby Boomer, Silent and Greatest Generations."

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