Retirement looms for us ”baby boomers” fortunate enough to believe that we can afford it. The thought of walking away from decades of work and well-established careers can seem both liberating and frightening, depending upon one’s approach to the inevitable “What’s next?” question. For some, the answer requires looking toward some sort of “second act” (also called “re-careering”) relative to an actual or desired need to maintain a post-retirement income stream. For others, however, imagining their “What’s next?” answers involves the possibility of becoming a volunteer.
Volunteerism (or voluntarism) pertains to actions that are not legally mandated. In the literal sense of the word, for example, religious practice is a form of volunteerism, as is military service (in the U.S.), chaperoning high school events or offering to take a later airline flight. But with regard to retirees, we’re referring to the more common understanding of volunteerism; that is, deciding to use our knowledge, skills, experience, wisdom, time and labor at no cost to others (whether persons, organizations or institutions) – to work for free in support of some non-personal “greater good.”
Working for free isn’t something most folks who’ve spent decades as salaried or wage laborers find immediately comfortable. Let’s face it – the knowledge, skills and experiences that we’ve accumulated during our working lives didn’t come easily (or without costs to us). Many who leave lifelong jobs can and do seek second careers or other sorts of paid (and in some cases, well-paid) “second acts” following retirement. But let’s be honest: those who choose such paths find themselves in another job with its own expectations, requirements and schedules not unlike work they’ve just exited. In contrast, volunteerism (i.e., working for free) allows us to select work that we want to do under the circumstances that we choose, all the while knowing that this new work is literally having a positive impact on society. Put differently, for those who can afford to become volunteers, the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are often far greater than the financial rewards of a new job.
Our interest in encouraging volunteerism does not necessarily reflect support for what is often understood as altruism (a form of Christian missionary ideology) or noblesse oblige (a moral responsibility of the wealthy) but rather from a wish to use our established labor-related value and ourselves in service to some “greater good.” Volunteering can make us better human beings while simultaneously helping others to do the same. Volunteerism allows us to purposefully interact with others in ways that serve their best interests. Certainly, altruism is inherent in the heart of many volunteers (in terms of “doing good for others”) and noblesse oblige is a driving force for others (in terms of sharing their own good fortune with others), but helping others in order to enable them to help themselves and society at large is the truest essence of volunteerism.
Who needs volunteers? The answer is pretty much any person or organization involved with serving others – especially those who are young, old, or socially troubled and/or in need. Virtually all schools need volunteers; businesses and non-profits need volunteers; social service organizations and programs need volunteers; communities and neighborhoods (through their numerous and active organizations) need volunteers; and lots of individuals (friends, neighbors and family members) can also benefit from volunteers. We’re not simply talking about volunteers who write checks to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, but rather volunteers who agree to show up at Habitat for Humanity worksites ready to pitch in and build a home; not writing a check to the local food bank, but rather showing up every third Thursday of each month to help distribute food to those who need it. Clearly, writing a check is great, but committing one’s time, energy and expertise to help get things done in “real time” is the sort of volunteerism we have in mind.
If you’re retired, or contemplating retirement, why not give some thought to becoming an active volunteer? You can begin to imagine yourself as a volunteer by exploring the following websites (these are just two of many):
volunteermatch.org and volunteeringinamerica.gov
You can also investigate specific local volunteer opportunities by typing “volunteering in [your city, state]” into your favorite search engine.
As volunteers ourselves, it’s no surprise that we’re promoting this work. Along with media reminders about the importance of exercise, diet and estate planning, we believe that volunteerism is among the most important items that “baby boomers” like us should include on our post-retirement planning lists. Please give it some thought. Thanks!