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More Retirees Are Volunteering Around the World

by Traci PedersenMarch 19, 2015

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” ~ Betty Friedan

More and more older Americans are feeling the call to give back to others and are finding themselves traveling across the world to volunteer their unique skills. Their wisdom, empathy and extensive experience are highly desired qualities in all types of volunteer work.

Overseas communities are especially eager to host older volunteers, as they tend to bring professional and specialized skills that are unavailable in the local labor markets. In fact, host countries consistently ask for older workers who have greater experience and skills to offer. A new study shows that in less than a decade, there has been a 60 percent increase in the number of seniors heading overseas to volunteer.

"As volunteers age, they have more professional skills to contribute, and that's what hosting organizations want," says researcher Benjamin J. Lough, a professor of social work at Illinois. "...they want competent people who can contribute something really useful, who have lifelong experience doing things. There is a consistent demand for volunteers who have meaningful skills and can stay for longer periods of time."

This significant growth in older volunteers is due in part to America’s booming over-55 population but is also due to an increase in recruitment efforts targeting retired workers. One example is the U.S. Peace Corps, an organization that has traditionally sought out younger people, but began a targeted marketing campaign in 2006 to recruit adults over age 50. Their efforts paid off, because by 2012, about 8 percent of their applications for overseas service were from older adults, according to the researchers.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey, an annual survey of more than 60,000 households. Participants reported on any volunteer work they did in other countries, the types of activities they engaged in and the organizations coordinating the programs. The average age of the participants was over 64.

In another study, the researchers asked 56 older adults about their motivations for volunteering abroad. About one-third said they were interested in learning about other cultures from an in-depth, relational perspective that can’t be found through tourism. About 20 percent were motivated by a family connection, such as intergenerational working with younger family members or siblings. Many wanted to “give back to others,” and still others wanted to share their “skills and years of experience.”

But “What good can I do?” you might ask. After all, the world is so big and its problems so great. Paul Sutherland, founder of the Utopia Foundation (Full disclosure: Paul Sutherland is also owner of Spirituality & Health Media), an international volunteer organization, likens volunteer work to the famous Starfish Story in which an old man questions a young girl as to why she is bothering to throw washed-up starfish back into the sea. “You can’t possibly make a difference,” he says. “There are just too many.” She gently tosses another and replies, “I made a difference for that one.”

(The original Starfish story is written by Loren Eiseley in 1978, but there are several adaptations.)


Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional freelance writer who specializes in psychology, science, health, and spiritual themes.  Some of her most recent work includes covering the latest research news in science and psychology, writing science chapter books for elementary students, and developing teacher resource books.  When she is not researching and writing, she is spending time with her family, reading anything and everything, and going to the beach as often as possible.


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