The Myth That Refuses to Die & The Truth About the “Lazy Youth”

A new report from the University of Maryland says that the number of college students volunteering has hit an all-time low.

That’s kind of like saying a Frosty is a drink because it comes in a cup. I guess it’s true as far as it goes, but my dipped french fry is telling me there’s more to the story.

DoSomething.org and its consulting arm, DoSomething Strategic, conducted its own study in 2016 and 2018 and found that America’s young people are, in fact, highly engaged in their communities and the world at large. They view their generation as central to fixing the problems they inherited and volunteer at high rates to improve their communities.

The 2016 data showed that 62% of young people (ages 13–25) volunteered at least once in the past 12 months. We repeated the survey in March 2018 and the percentage of young people volunteering rose to 67%; for just college-aged young people (18–25) it’s 65%!

Volunteering Outside “The System”

The University of Maryland report cites its source as the Current Population Survey (CPS) Volunteer Supplement, which was conducted each September from 2002 to 2015 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reflects a relatively low rate of youth volunteerism in 2015–26.4% for teens and 18.4% for those in their early twenties.

However, the Bureau uses a dated definition of volunteerism, which instructs their survey participants to “only…include volunteer activities that you did through or for an organization.” This artificial delimitation excludes most of the charitable work that young people currently do.

The Bureau uses a dated definition of volunteerism…. This artificial delimitation excludes most of the charitable work that young people currently do.

In contrast, DoSomething’s survey instructed respondents to consider formal and informal volunteer activities they did “…for any group or organization, with friends, or by yourself…working in some way to help others for no pay,” and the results were drastically different.Informal activities can include spending time helping a classmate with homework, cleaning an elderly neighbor’s house without pay, or bringing water to those in need on a hot day — things that are not done through a local or national organization or logged for community service hours, but are carried out nonetheless.

This broadened definition was adopted to keep current with how young people engage not just with volunteerism, but also with a generational shift away from formal arrangements.

This broadened definition was adopted to keep current with how young people engage not just with volunteerism, but also with a generational shift away from formal arrangements.

So when Garnier taps 30 college students to lead a campus competition to collect the most empty beauty products and they recycle nearly 20,000 empties, that counts. Or when truth invites young people to pick up cigarette butts in their community and collectively they pick up nearly 4 million butts, that counts. Or when DoSomething.org asks young people to make birthday cards for children experiencing homelessness and they make 157,809 cards, that counts.

Part of why these engagements were so effective is because they made volunteering simple and showed how their collective impact can make a huge difference. They also made volunteering fun, competitive even, and made it easy to get involved. Anyone can grab a plastic bag and collect cigarette butts, or decorate a box to collect empty beauty products in their dorm. These activations lifted the often cumbersome requirements of traditional volunteer engagements and just inspired people to do something good.

They also made volunteering fun, competitive even, and made it easy to get involved.

Civic engagement, activism, and advocacy should also be considered part of these informal activities. The Bureau’s limited definition would also preclude the incredible activism of the Parkland students and other youth-led engagements around police brutality and immigration reform. That’s absurd. These youth may not be part of a formal organization, but they’re activating and helping others all the same — and at the systemic level, which is even more impressive.

TL;DR

By acknowledging activities outside traditional organization-instructed opportunities, the reported rate of annual youth volunteerism more than doubled. The low rates from the Bureau — instead of proving that young people are selfish or lazy — highlight the increasing irrelevance of traditional organizations or restrictive volunteering programs.

We applaud the report author’s conclusions that “…too many colleges and universities aren’t offering enough opportunities to take advantage of the high interest that students have today around engaging in social impact and social innovation.”

But that doesn’t mean young people are waiting for them.

The volunteer landscape is simply evolving, diversifying, and getting stronger, all thanks to this generation of young people.

Yep, young people are getting. Stuff. Done.


About DoSomething Strategic
DoSomething Strategic is the data-driven social impact consultancy arm of DoSomething.org. We help brands and organizations engage young people for positive social change. We combine proprietary data with a deep understanding of what young people care about to help clients build relationships with this unique demographic and activate them for social good. Our expertise is grounded in moving 6 million DoSomething.org members — ages 13–25 in every area code in the United States and in 131 countries worldwide — to take social action, and we’ve been doing this work successfully day in and day out for over 25.