The motivations behind volunteering in retirement

Snow on crabapplesRetirement Stats, Studies, and Stuff

Guest Writer:
Luc Cousineau, MA, PhD Student, University of Waterloo


Luc Cousineau is a Doctoral student in the department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo. His line of inquiry focuses on power relationships, particularly as they are related to gender, social structures, age, and marginalization, as well as transition phases in the life course – particularly young adulthood and retirement. He lives in Guelph, Ontario with his partner Shannon, and Randy the dog.


In September of 2015, the government of Canada released a statement saying that for the first time in the history of the country, there were more Canadians over the age of 65 than under the age of 15. They also announced that given the population distribution at the present time, this trend will continue for at least another decade and a half. Canadians over the age of 65 are also healthier than they have ever been. With a life expectancy now well into their 80s, and an active post-retirement lifespan of 10 to 25 years and beyond, older adults in Canada (read: adults over 60) are a large, growing, and influential pillar of our population.

I say all of this because it gives context to the research that I am presenting here, and helps those who are not older adults understand why research with older adults is important. What follows is a brief summary of the results from my Master’s work in Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo. For this research I had the pleasure of engaging with 15 adults, each of whom were over 60, engaged with regular volunteer work, and retired or in transition to full retirement at the time of the interview. The aim of the work was to explore the lived experiences of older adult volunteers as they transitioned to retirement, with a specific focus on the following question: What role does the volunteer experience play in meaning-making during the transition to retirement among older adults?


Why not ask older adults?

As with most academic work, there is a large body of literature which explores the lives of older adults in the social sciences. Scholars in these areas have explored the meaning of retirement, the stages of retirement, and the social expectations we have for retirees. They have explored the transition to retirement, and some scholars have theorized about the nature of decisions retirees make in choosing activities. There is also a body of literature which explores issues specific to older adults who choose to volunteer, and their motivations for doing so. While all of this work talks about older adults, very little of it actually talks with older adults; engaging them and their stories directly in the research. By engaging participants in discussions about their volunteering, I was seeking out what was important to them in volunteer work. I did this in an effort to add the personal into what is often a very impersonal world of research on others.


Matrix of motivations

What I learned from my generous participants was both simple and complex. These older adults chose to volunteer because they enjoyed it, and because they got back something unique as they gave their time. They did not volunteer because they felt they had to. These are the simple ideas, but inside each of them is a complex matrix of motivations and meanings which drove their volunteer participation. Participants enjoyed volunteering because it was a source of role identity, which meant that it gave them a way to define their sense of self as a retired person. For some, it was a way to challenge themselves like they had been challenged when they were working. For others, it was a combination of feeling involved with something, but also having autonomy over their actions and commitments. For others still, they enjoyed volunteering because it allowed them to feel as though they were making a difference in the lives of others and the community.

Delving deeper into the experiences of participants, what volunteering gave them was sometimes a way to think about and understand this new stage of life they were entering. Their volunteer involvement was affected by personal issues, fear, anxiety, and the realities of growing older. For some, the complexity of managing their time during retirement was difficult without a schedule like they had in work. Some grappled with feelings of loss of purpose in life, and the loss of personal and social connections which were wrapped up in their working lives. The challenges of others were far less cerebral. One participant who described themselves as a disabled senior living in poverty explained that every volunteering decision they make, or commitment they take on, stresses their resources to the limit, but that the positive personal interactions and outcomes have been worth the hardship.


Those with a plan and those without

These details demonstrate the great diversity and complexity of the experiences of older adult volunteers, a diversity which only grows along with the Canadian population of older adults. It also lays a foundation for exploring what turned out to the most interesting part of my research findings: a distinct difference between the volunteer choices of retirees who had a retirement plan, and those who did not have a plan. For the volunteers in my study, retirement planning had a direct effect on what kind of volunteer work they chose as they retired. For those who had planned their retirement, the volunteer work they chose was very different from what they had done while working (e.g. going from a job in administration to being a charity delivery driver), a finding which is compelling because it does not match up with previous work in this area. For participants without a retirement plan, their volunteer work looked very similar to their working lives, almost as if they had unfinished business in that field or area of work.


Why is this of value?

Presented with this information, you might be asking yourself, ‘so what?’ or ‘why is this important beyond simply being interesting?’

On an individual level, it is an opportunity to explore personal decision-making and planning. Whether you see yourself in these findings or not, this research will afford you the opportunity to explore your own retirement and volunteer decisions. At the very least, I hope that it will give you cause to look more thoroughly into the why of your own decision-making – as was the case with some of my participants. For organizations which engage older adult volunteers, the implications are more direct. As organizations look to engage more directly and thoroughly with older adult volunteers, having a better understanding of the possible mechanisms for volunteer decision-making might allow them to improve their recruitment efforts. They may also be better situated to make their volunteers happier, and therefore keep them as volunteers for longer. In the end, this research adds something new to the academic work about older adults who volunteer, and a piece which engages directly with individuals and their stories.

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