Bridging the Generational Gap in Volunteerism by Developing Generation-Based Volunteer Management Practices

world-population-day-2012_110712 Generations…

The make-up of our society is changing rapidly as the older population is increasing at a rate that has never been seen before.  The percentage of Americans who are ages 65 and older has tripled since 1900.  Because individuals are living longer, by year 2020, that number will spike even more of an increase.

When individuals are raised in different time periods, their values and perceptions of the world can be extremely different, and this can potentially lead to difficulties in understanding one another.  Because of this alleged “gap” in understanding between generations, it is important to find links between younger and older generations. This can be accomplished by helping children learn how to relate to older adults, and vice versa. Parents and caregivers can facilitate this process in many ways. For instance, they can create opportunities for children and older adults to spend time together in order to build a relationship.

…BUT…is there really a “generation gap”?

Generation GapResearch lends us to believe that generational differences are becoming easier to identify.  The “generation” a person belongs to can greatly affect many aspects of his or her life. The term “generation gap” was coined to mean the empty space in which people born of different times do not understand each other because of their differing attitudes, values, communication, and interests. But the “generation gap” term is no longer a true reflection of the attitudes among generations. With people living longer and communication increasing, there is great potential to develop relationships with all generations. There is much time spent personally and professionally dealing with people of many generations.

What makes a “generation”?

A generation is based on the range of birth years of a group of people. Generations can span many years; since people are individuals, not all members of a generation exhibit the same traits. Generational traits develop during the formative growth years of that generation. Someone born in 1954 would be influenced by an early-1960s childhood and a 1970s young adulthood. These influences affect people’s values and attitudes throughout their lives.

Why do we need to understand generations?

Understanding generations can help people discover the values of each group of people. This understanding can help different age groups relate to one another and share ideas.  This understanding will not result in a magical solution to break down generational differences, because each difference is also influenced by individual behavior. However, understanding different generations will help people have more appreciation for the concerns and issues of each era.

The Five Living Generations and Their Characteristics

SILENT GENERATION… Radio Babies, Silent Generation, Traditionalists

Silent• Watched parents struggle to make ends meet during Great Depression of 1930s
• Very careful with money, conservative, have great respect for authority
• Fought in World War II or Korean War
• Grew up without television
• Very loyal to their employers
• Job security very important, switching jobs not easily embraced

… Sandwich Generation

Baby Boomers• Represent largest group in workforce
• Will inflict largest “brain drain” when they retire
• Often involved in both child care and elder care
• Fought in wars abroad such as the Vietnam War
• Used typewriters rather than computers
• Important changes such as “The Pill”, the civil rights movement and “Trudeau-mania” era
• Highly educated; desiring of better lifestyle than their parents

… Baby Busters

GenX• Witnessed many dramatic changes in economy and technology
• First generation to be entertained by video games like Atari
• Saw first Quebec Referendum in Canada
• High number of divorced parents, dual-income families and “latch key” kids
• Accustomed to recurring economic recessions; familiar with oil shortages, terrorist attacks, soaring inflation
• Skeptical, independent and entrepreneurial
• Most well educated generation so far; great candidates for leadership positions


GENERATION Y… Generation Why?, Echo Boomers, Nexus Generation, Net Generation, Millennials

GenY• Grew up with technology such as the Internet, computers, voice mail, video games
• More globally minded than previous generations
• Population three times bigger than Gen Xer population
• Dual-income parents, divorces, daycare
• Very protective parents (often termed ‘helicopter parents’)
• Accepting of others’ differences in race, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity
• Inquisitive, socially and environmentally conscious, concerned about the future, highly entrepreneurial
• Have lived through one of the biggest economic booms in North American history
• Often described as the generation with a sense of ‘entitlement’

… New Millenials, Generation Next, Cuspers, Generation 9-11, Zoomers

GenZ• Youngest group in the workforce now
• Extremely techno-savvy; instant messaging preferred mode of communication (i.e., email is for ‘old folks’)
• Protective parents; monitoring by adults is often seen as positive means of protection
• Confident, happy and secure
• Team players, like to engage in community service activities
• More activities available to them than previous generations, team activities often co-ed

How should we “manage the mix”?

Knowing what motivates the members of each generation and developing operational practices can help any business or civic group. The key to reaching a group’s goal is found in cooperation. There has never been a time where five generations have existed at the same time, like now.  This is why it is extremely crucial to take advantage of the knowledge of each living generation.

Developing Generation-Based Volunteer Management Practices

A considerable amount of talent exists within each generation; it would be remiss if organizations neglect to take full advantage of each individual’s talents and skills. It is imperative that there is understanding related to what it takes to engage, motivate, and retain those talents and skills.

Understanding what engages, motivates, and eventually retains individuals to continue volunteering their time and talents is extremely important for Volunteer Resource Managers in nonprofit organizations where volunteers share a significant part in fulfilling the organization’s overall mission.  If nonprofit organizations aspire to use volunteers, it is a necessity that they understand why volunteers desire to volunteer in the first place.  Engaging volunteers in the right way is crucial to any type of organization.  Nonprofit organizations should look towards developing effective and efficient volunteer management practices of recruitment, recognition, and retention of all ages of volunteers, especially capitalizing on the current five living generations (i.e. – the silent generation, baby boomers, generation X, generation Y, and generation Z).  *These are explicitly designed practices that are tailor fit to each specific generation.

So What’s Next?

YOU ARE! Be a part of a study that purposes to describe the experiences that contribute to the development of generation-based volunteer management practices among five generations of volunteers in metro-Atlanta nonprofit organizations.

Join other participants in the study by participating in a 45 – 60-minute, face to face interview where you will be able to talk about your experience as a volunteer (specifically discussing your engagement and retention experiences).

The generation “time periods” used in the study: 


Silent Generation

Baby Boomer Generation

Generation X

Generation Y

Generation Z

Year Born

1925 – 1945

1946 – 1964

1965 – 1980

1981 – 2000

2001 – present

**The implications for social change are plenty: foster enhanced ways of engaging and retaining all generational cohorts in organizations, bridge the volunteer generation gap, and help organizations supersede their missions through volunteerism.

For more information, or to participate, email:


Bennett, R. (1976). Attitudes of the young toward the old: A review of research. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 55, 136-139.
Erikson, E. H., Erikson, J. M. & Kivnick, H. Q. (1986). Vital involvement in old age. W.W. New York: Norton & Co. Inc.
Hickey, L. A., Hickey, T., & Tallish, R. A. (1968). Young people’s perceptions of the elderly. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 112, 227-235.
Miller, S. M., Blaloc, J., & Ginsberg, H. J. (1985). Children and the ages: Attitude, contact and discriminative ability. International Journal of Ageing and Human Development, 19, 47-53.
Nelson, T. (2009). Use Them or Lose Them: Keeping Volunteers Happy and Committed.  Chronicle of Philanthropy, 21(21), 34.
Ronalds, P. (2012). The change imperative: creating the next generation NGO. Kumarian Press.
Sago, Brad. “Uncommon Threads: Mending the Generation Gap at Work,” Business Credit, June 2000, pg 57-59. “Understanding generations” University of North Texas, Society for Human Resource Management student newsletter (

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