Rob Jackson: The squeezed middle

To recruit volunteers from people in Generation X, you have to understand them, writes our columnist

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Schools in Canberra, Australia are facing a crisis.

According to the Australian Capital Territory Council of Parents and Citizens Associations, it is getting much harder to recruit volunteers. This is leading to a shortage that is having a serious effects: school sport doesn’t happen at the weekends; school fetes aren’t being held; money isn’t being raised.

It’s not just in Australia, either.

Here in the UK, some 30,000 volunteer school governor places are unfilled and education experts are asking questions about the need to grow the role of volunteers in schools, with some primary schools already relying on volunteers giving the time of 6.5 full-time equivalent staff. There is also a well-publicised shortage of 17,000 scout leaders, leaving 51,000 young people unable to join.
When it comes to volunteering, I have previously written about how we are obsessed with young people and how slow and small efforts are being made to engage baby boomers. But neither of those groups is the prime target for schools. They want Generation X, people born between the late 60s and late 70, and who are ideally parents. People like me.

To engage Gen X you have to understand them.

There are far fewer Gen Xers than there were baby boomers. That means schools, sports clubs, uniformed youth organisations and the like are asking a smaller number of people to fill a lot of roles previously occupied by a plentiful supply of boomers.

Many Gen Xers have deferred having children until later in life, so we might be the target age but our kids might not yet be involved in the organisations that need volunteers.

Many more Gen Xers are single parents than in previous generations. That places huge demands on our time that make finding spare capacity for volunteering difficult.

At this stage in our lives, many more Gen Xers have experienced relationship break-up and divorce than those from previous generations. This leads to more blended families, where we have to manage relationships and commitments across a much more complex family structure than most of our parents did. That also limits the time available to volunteer.

And, of course, Gen X is working harder than ever (along with the generations behind us) to earn the money to pay the government to fund the ever-growing state pension for retiring baby boomers and the shortfall in social care and health spending.

I agree with Australian colleagues that bureaucracy and formalisation of volunteering could serve as barriers to people putting their hands up to help, but I worry far more that organisations aren’t adapting their offers to a new generation of volunteers. Failing to acknowledge and adapt to how people are different from their parents, and the pressures (real or perceived) they feel on their time in the modern world, is as big a barrier as that eight-page application form (in triplicate).

What do you think? Share your views in the comments below.

Next month, how we might adapt our offer to Gen X volunteers.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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