Are Youth Less Involved in Community Service Today?


Photo: An Interact Club raises $2,000 for Doctor without Borders with a 5K race

by Quentin Wodon

Twenty years ago Putnam suggested in his Bowling Alone paper that in contrast with earlier times in American history, social capital was eroding in the United States. Putnam suggested several explanations for this perceived decline (which has been much debated since). The movement of women into the labor force may reduce the time they have for investing in social capital and community life. A higher labor mobility may be preventing workers from planting deep enough roots in their communities to nurture civic engagement (the “repotting” hypothesis). Demographic and other transformations may also play a role, including through the rise of supermarkets as opposed to neighborhood stores. And perhaps most importantly, the technological transformation of leisure – at the time Putnam wrote his article, the irruption of television, the VCR, and other technologies, may lead to a privatization and individualization of leisure time and a concurrent drop in civic engagement.

In today’s world, at least in wealthy countries such as the US, many teenagers often carry their cellphone, iPad, or other electronic device almost everywhere they go. The irruption of technology – and the apparent privatization of leisure time, may seem to be stronger than ever, potentially eroding further various forms of social capital, including in terms of service work for communities and the less fortunate.

But is this actually the case? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes annual statistics on volunteering in the US. In 2013 the overall volunteer rate declined by 1.1 percentage points to 25.4% for the year ending in September – this was the lowest rate since the BLS started to collect the data in 2002 (see the press release here). The rate for teens (16- to 19-year-olds) was slightly higher, at 26.2%, but it was also in decline from 27.4% in 2012. However, the volunteering rate in 2012 was also the highest recorded in the previous six years – for teens, the volunteering rate in 2007 was at 25.5%. More importantly, beyond variations over short periods of time, if one looks at longer term trends, as the Corporation for National and Community Service has done, volunteering rates appear higher today than 30 or 40 years ago.

Volunteering among teens seems to be alive and well, not only in the United States, but also abroad. For example, the youth report of the European Union suggests that the proportion of youth working for civil society organizations and associations has increased slightly over the last decade, mostly thanks to large gains in four countries (Denmark, Germany, Finland and Sweden). One of the potential explanations suggested is that lack of satisfaction with political structures would lead youth to get more involved with community activities and small-scale organizations where they feel they can make more of a difference.

In Rotary, the available data also points to substantial, and possibly more volunteering over time among youth. Interact is the branch of Rotary International for children and youth between 12 and 18 years of age. The first Interact Club was chartered with 23 students from Melbourne High School in Florida in 1962. Today Interact worldwide has more members than Rotaract (the Rotary branch for young professionals).

Exactly how many Interactors (the members of Interact clubs) are involved in clubs is difficult to tell very precisely because Rotary International does not maintain a database of Interactors like it does for members of Rotary clubs. But estimates suggest that there are close to 400,000 Interactors worldwide. This is based on a total of 16,742 clubs (April 2014 data) and an assumption (based on the data available) of an average of 23 members per club. Interact Clubs operate in 151 countries and geographic areas. The estimates – based on club growth – also suggest that the year-on-year growth rate in membership is positive (it was 1.7% from 2013 to 2014).

What do Interactors do in terms of service work? They are involved in all kinds of projects, some of which are featured annually through the Interact video contest. This blog will feature Interact projects – as well as other great service initiatives by youth whether they are involved in Interact or not. Some of those stories will also be published as part of the Interact Today newsletter that you can find on the Interact page of this blog. The first issue of the newsletter featured an interview with then-Rotary International President Ron Burton. But it also featured a nice story about the Broadneck High School Interact Club in Maryland. The club held its first Broadneck without Borders 5 kilometer race a few months ago and raised $2,000 for Doctors without Borders. This is the non-profit organization leading the fight against Ebola in West Africa.

Youth – including Interactors – are doing great service work all around the world. Congratulations to you if you are one of them.

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