Millennials Lead the Nation in Service to Our Country

The most recent survey of volunteer activity across the nation released by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) demonstrates the "spirit of service" which animates America's newest generation, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003.  Approximately 1.3 million more Millennials offered their time without compensation to non-profit organizations in 2008 as compared to 2007, providing over a billion hours of volunteer service to our nation's communities. This increase among Millennials represented all of last year's gain in volunteerism; other generations combined showed no increase in participation levels.

The increase in volunteerism among young people was most pronounced among those attending college, who registered a 10% gain in participation.  But even teens between 16 and 19 years old, many of whom were still in high school, increased their volunteer rates by 5%. Reflecting the difficult economic times, the single largest increase among types of volunteer activity was for  "working with neighbors in the community." Young people also consistently demonstrated their desire to share their knowledge with other young people. Activities described as mentoring other young people or tutoring  and teaching  others for free garnered a combined 42% of Millennial volunteers' time.  Almost two-thirds of this youthful volunteer activity was done through religious or educational non-profit institutions. All of this Millennial volunteer work contributed over $22 billion worth of economic activity to the nation's non-profit sector (based on independent evaluations of the estimated monetary value of a volunteer hour, $20.25). (link to our earlier NDN Blog on role of service in the economy).

While Millennials are overwhelmingly Democratic in their partisan allegiance, the geographic pattern of volunteerism does not break down along red state/blue state lines. Retaining a lead established in 1989, the Midwest had the highest levels of volunteerism among all regions. The only non-Midwestern states to rank in the top ten in percentage of volunteer participation were Utah (#1), Alaska (#4), and Vermont  (#9). Yet the South, with the largest population of any region, has the highest overall number of volunteers and the West, led by Utah with its large population of service-oriented Mormons, put in more volunteer hours per person than any other region. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the single largest number of volunteers was in the country's two most populous states, Blue California and  Red Texas. America's shared belief in the efficacy of volunteer activity, led by Millennials, therefore provides a great opportunity for building bipartisan support for increased incentives to expand this key part of the nation's economy. 

The trend toward increasing volunteerism is likely to continue. The percentage of college freshmen believing that it is "essential or very important to help people in need" rose to its highest level since 1970 (70%) when the last of the idealistic Baby Boomers entered college. Between that year and this, America experienced a generation long withdrawal from community life. Generation X, the generation between the Boomers and Millennials, led by the pronouncement by its political hero, Ronald Reagan, that "government was the problem, not the solution" focused more on the individual economic success of its members than on civic life.  

Reflecting the Millennials' belief in civic engagement, the same survey of college freshmen showed "a revival of interest in political involvement, at a level comparable and in some cases surpassing the baby boom generation of college freshmen," according to Sylvia Hurtado, co-author of the report and director of the Higher Education Research Institute. "I think this last election, and the need to attend to the nation's problems, has captured the hope and imagination of college students who will be committed to helping to devise solutions." Interest in "keeping up to date on political affairs" has risen 40% since 9/11. All of this focus on civic involvement and working together is reflected in changes in ideological self-identification, with 31% of the 2008 freshman class identifying as liberal, the highest percentage in 35 years, while conservative identification dropped slightly to 21% down from 23% just one year ago.

Millennials are now the single largest generation in America.  Their contribution to the electorate will sharply expand for the next decade. As a result, their demonstrated belief in the efficacy of collective action and their liberal political philosophy will produce a re-ordering of America's priorities. The only question remaining is how long it will take the older generations now in power in Washington to recognize this change in America and shift their public policy approach accordingly.

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