Shifting Milestones, Fewer Donors and Volunteers: 21st Century Life for Young Adults and the Impact on Charitable Behaviors

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Dietz, Nathan, and Grimm, Robert T., Jr. 2019. “Shifting Milestones, Fewer Donors and Volunteers: 21st Century Life for Young Adults and the Impact on Charitable Behaviors" Research Brief: Do Good Institute, University of Maryland.



The United States has experienced declines in adults’ rates of volunteering with organizations and charitable giving over the last two decades. Because these behaviors generate wide-ranging benefits for communities as well as the volunteers themselves, it is essential to figure out how to turn around these downward trends. First we need to better understand the societal factors driving these declines.

Research on volunteering with organizations has frequently focused on the health benefits that older volunteers enjoy, and the positive effects of volunteering for children and adolescents. These studies fit into a larger literature on the benefits of prosocial behavior, which can include giving to charity and informal civic activities in addition to volunteering with an organization. However, with only a few recent exceptions, there are few empirical studies that address the question of why volunteering and giving rates have risen and fallen in recent years.

This brief focuses on how the volunteering and giving rates of young adults (ages 22 through 35) are related to their life choices. Our study focuses on five milestones that have historically been associated with the transition to adulthood: completing formal higher education, getting a job, marrying, becoming a parent, and living independently. To address this question, we combine data featured in recent U.S. Census Bureau research, which found that Americans are reconceiving the idea of what it means to reach adulthood, with data collected from the Current Population Survey (CPS) Supplement on Volunteering (Volunteer Supplement). Every September between 2002 and 2015, the CPS Volunteer Supplement collected national statistics on volunteering through or for an organization. Starting in 2008, the Supplement also began collecting data on giving to charity.