Call it what you want—the Greatest Generation, the G.I. Generation, the Long Civic Generation, the World War II Generation—most people agree that the generation that lived through the Depression and World War II was something special. According to Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, “This cohort has been exceptionally more civic—voting more, joining more, reading more, trusting more, giving more.” The question is will succeeding generations continue to be as involved in civic life as the Greatest Generation.
The Baby Boomers will follow in their footsteps, and it is the contributions of everyday Baby Boomers that will be important as the country’s population ages: for example, in voting, returning the census, donating money to charity, volunteering, and serving on juries. The social fabric of our society is woven as people do these things.
As North Carolina’s 2.3 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 begin to reach age 65 in 2011, the proportion of the state’s population aged 65 and older, now 12 percent, will increase. By 2030, when the youngest Baby Boomers turn 65, that proportion is projected to increase to 18 percent, or 2.2 million older North Carolinians. Given the numbers, North Carolina has a vested interest in making sure that the Boomers are civically engaged.
In his seminal work called Bowling Alone, Putnam argues that the health of a democracy depends upon certain forms of social capital, which “refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” As a way of measuring social capital, Putnam looks at Americans’ historical levels of civic engagement through political participation; involvement in religious, community, and work-related groups; philanthropy; and volunteering.
Voting: An Individual Right, A Collective Force
In the November 2008 elections, there were 1.14 million registered voters aged 65 and over in North Carolina. They turned out to vote at a higher percentage (76 percent) than voters statewide (70 percent). The United States Election Project does not calculate turnout based on percentage voting among registered voters; instead, they calculate turnout as a percentage of the voting-eligible population. Using this method, the turnout nationally was 61.7 percent, and the turnout in North Carolina was 65.8 percent.
In North Carolina, Baby Boomers constitute the largest voting bloc, and that will likely only increase as they age. Only the Millennial Generation (1977–1990) rivals the Boomers in power of the generational vote.
Census Return Rates: Older Americans Want To Be Counted
Nationwide, the final U.S. Census return rate in 2000 was 78.4 percent. Those aged 65 and older had the highest return rate: 89.1 percent. Those aged 45 to 64 followed with a return rate of 82.4 percent.
Charitable Giving: Will the Boomers Give Back?
The Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College has developed a way to estimate charitable giving. The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research commissioned them to estimate religious and secular giving to give us an idea about patterns of charitable giving by age cohort in our state.
The Center on Wealth and Philanthropy estimates that in 2002 there were 594,978 heads of household aged 50 to 59 in North Carolina, and they donated an average of $2,247 that year (3.75 percent of their income). There were 363,651 heads of household aged 60 to 69, and they gave an average of $1,680 (4.47 percent of their income). And, there were 502,046 heads of household aged 70 or older, and they gave an average of $1,334, the highest percentage of income (5.54 percent). Boomers likely will follow the normal tendency of giving a higher percentage of their income as they age.
Although those aged 70 and older give a larger percentage of their incomes, Boomers are more likely to give. In a 2008 survey, 72.8 percent of the Leading Boomers (1946–1955) had given money in the past 12 months to a nonprofit; 70.8 percent had given money to a place of worship; and 23.1 percent had given money to a political candidate or party.
Over the next several decades, the United States will see an estimated $7.2–13.7 trillion transferred from members of the World War II Generation to Baby Boomers through bequests. According to one estimate, charities nationwide could receive as much as $3 trillion between 2001 and 2010, which is nearly double the $1.6 trillion received during the 1990s. This transfer could reshape the nonprofit sector. The Boomers give less money to religious organizations than the Greatest Generation—opting to donate money to umbrella organizations that provide different services, such as the United Way or Salvation Army, and to youth and family organizations.
Volunteering: Helping Organizations and Improving Health and Well-being
Just over 25 percent of all North Carolinians volunteer. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, in 2008, 1.7 million North Carolinians volunteered with an organization, performing 221.1 million hours of service. Nationwide, 26.4 percent of residents engaged in civic life by volunteering, attending public meetings, or working with neighbors informally to improve their communities. Of those, 35.9 percent volunteered with a religious organization and 26.7 percent with an educational service in 2008, as compared to 49.4 and 11.5 percent, respectively, in 1989. In North Carolina, almost 42 percent of those who volunteer do so with a religious organization.
In 2008, North Carolina’s volunteer rate (25.3 percent) ranked 35th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In terms of the average annual volunteer hours per state resident, North Carolina ranked 37th at 32.1 hours per year. North Carolina ranked 32nd in volunteer retention rates (64.5 percent), which represents the percentage of volunteers who continue their service for more than one year.
The older adult (aged 65 and older) volunteer rate in North Carolina was 22.7 percent, ranking 34th nationally. The Baby Boomer volunteer rate was higher at 29 percent, also ranking 34th nationally. Baby Boomer volunteer rates were surpassed only by college student volunteer rates in North Carolina—ranked 14th at 32.9 percent. Nationally, the volunteer rate of Baby Boomers was 30 percent, while that of college students was lower at 26.3 percent.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, “Baby Boomers in their late 40s to mid-50s have higher volunteer rates than past generations had at the same ages.” State and local governments could leverage this trend toward rising civic engagement. Volunteering is good for the individual as well. There is a positive relationship between volunteering and better health. As they age, volunteers often have lower mortality rates, greater mobility, and lower rates of depression.
Civic Contribution Survey Results: Boomers Are Engaged
In September 2009, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released the results of a survey of Internet users and civic engagement. The Center obtained the survey responses and generated results for the questions by generation.
When considering the responses, Boomers aged 44 to 62 often appear more civically engaged than those aged 63 and over; in part, this may not be as much a generational difference as it is a result of age, health, and well-being. Even so, it is interesting to note how both generations—the Baby Boomers and the World War II Generation—choose to be engaged. For instance, between August 2007 and August 2008, almost 25 percent of Leading Boomers aged 54 to 62 attended a political meeting on local, town, or school affairs. And, 16.7 percent of the Leading Boomers were an active member of a group that tries to influence public policy or government.
For those who use the Internet, the survey also looked at the role of the Internet in civic engagement. Perhaps surprisingly, those aged 63 and over were more likely than Boomers to be engaged online. The pattern continued when respondents were asked about discussing politics and public affairs with others. For those aged 72 and over, 17.3 percent do so by Internet at least once a week, and 8.1 percent do so every day. For the Leading Boomers, they are more likely to discuss these issues in person, by phone, or in a letter: 37 percent do so at least once a week, and 22.1 percent do so every day.
Service on Jury Duty: Older Americans Are Excused
Looking around a jury room, it often seems as though a disproportionate number of jurors are aged 65 and older. But, age provides potential jurors an excuse from jury duty in 26 states: age 65 in six states, age 70 in 16 states, age 72 in two states, including North Carolina; and age 75 in two states.
Help Wanted: Boomers Needed To Stay in the Workplace, a Source of Social Capital
According to Putnam, “The American workplace generates social capital in three broad ways. First, the job is where people build trusting relationships based on mutual assistance. Second, workplaces act as recruiting grounds for individuals and community organizations that are building social capital outside the office or factory walls. Third, employers contribute as organizations—by sponsoring volunteer teams, by donating money to worthy causes, and by instituting ‘work-life’ programs to make it easier for employees to meet family and community obligations.”
In 2007, almost four million North Carolina workers made an average of $41,499 in yearly earnings. Of those, 898,650 were younger Baby Boomers (aged 45 to 54) making the highest average yearly earnings of any age group at $51,036. The 522,639 older working Boomers (aged 55 to 64) made an average of $47,757. By contrast, there were 147,555 older adult workers (aged 65 and older) making a yearly average of $29,151.
Because more than 85 percent of Tar Heels aged 65 and over choose to exit the work force, the impending retirement of the Baby Boom generation may deprive North Carolina of the workers needed to compete economically. Thus, it is important to encourage seniors to stay in the work force longer. This may happen with the Boomers. The age for collecting full federal Social Security benefits will increase from age 65 to age 67 in 2022. And, according to the Center on Aging and Workplace Flexibility at Boston College, “A growing number of older workers are expressing an interest in retiring gradually. The passage of the [federal] Pension Protection Act as well as changes in employers’ pension plans may make it possible for older workers to phase into full retirement though reduced work hours and job responsibilities.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the labor force participation rate for those aged 65 to 74 will rise from 15.2 percent in 1986 to 29.5 percent in 2016. For those aged 75 and older, the rate is projected to rise from 4 percent in 1986 to 10.5 percent in 2016. Extending retirement ages will be even more important as advances in health care continue to lead to longer life expectancies.
Lifelong Learning: Keeping Boomers in the Classroom and Civically Involved
Partly because the Baby Boomers have higher levels of education than their predecessors, the percentage of older adults with postsecondary education is projected to rise from 12 percent in 2002 to 20 percent in 2010. That percentage is expected to continue to rise dramatically. This trend might even be augmented if a high percentage of Baby Boomers seek post-retirement careers requiring continuing education.
Baby Boomers in North Carolina make up almost one-third of community college enrollment and 3.5 percent of public university enrollment. In a poll conducted during the summer of 2009, the AARP found that 21 percent of adults aged 50 to 64 were likely to go back to school this year. Of adults aged 65 and older, only 7 percent said they were likely to go back to school this year. Of those that thought they would go back to school, the reasons varied by age group. For those aged 50–64, they were most likely to go back to school to sharpen skills that would help on the job (52 percent). For those aged 65 and older, they were overwhelmingly most likely to go back to school strictly for pleasure (71 percent). As the number of older students increases, more colleges, charities, companies, and governments may begin accommodating and even encouraging adults to return to the classroom.
Will the Baby Boomers’ Civic Contribution Be Great?
Despite their advancing age, the World War II Generation continues to be civically engaged. They vote at higher rates than the population at large. They return the census at higher rates than other age groups. They give a higher percentage of their income to charity. And, they are more likely than Baby Boomers to be civically engaged online.
As we evaluate the civic engagement of the Boomers as they age, it will be important to consider both their individual and collective contributions. More than 80 percent of Boomers return the census. Boomers give more and are more likely to give than those aged 63 and older. They have higher volunteer rates than earlier generations did at their age. In large numbers, Boomers attend political meetings and belong to groups that try to shape public policy.
Boomers may alter our concept of retirement if they choose to work later in life. They may go back to school. Many will volunteer or give money to a charity, and they may reshape the giving patterns and the nonprofit sector by supporting a broader range of nonprofits. They may vote more. And in the process, collectively they may generate different ways of creating a very precious commodity—social capital.