Young people like contributing

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

On 23 November 2019, the Society for the Common Benefit of the Canton of St. Gallen (GGSG) invited volunteers to the “Day of Volunteers” at the University of Applied Sciences St. Gallen FHS on the occasion of its 200th anniversary. In addition to the members of the GGSG, representatives of various associations concerned about the promotion of young talents, but also about a dozen young people who do voluntary work themselves, met in the well-filled plenary hall.
    A new FHS study was presented and discussed on the question of whether and how the “digital natives”, i.e. young people and young adults, can still be won over to voluntary work today.1 More than 2,600 students from St. Gallen University, vocational and high schools, and young representatives of associations between the ages of 16 and 25 had provided information on their voluntary commitment in an online survey in March. The authors of the study wanted to find out what expectations and motives motivate young people to volunteer, how associations, schools and politicians can win them over to voluntary work and how this should be shaped in the future in the “digital age”.
    In fact, the results of the study impressively demonstrate that even today a large proportion of young people can be won over to active participation in the tasks of society. Their motives differ only slightly from those of previous generations, and – particularly remarkable – the personal example of committed adults radiates far more than so-called social media. The importance of digitisation is therefore also being exaggerated with regard to voluntary work by young people: In reality, it can only ever be a tool for our activities – it cannot replace interpersonal relationships. Here are some insights into the study.

Although all participants regularly use one or more digital media, 82% state that they have started their activities “on the basis of a personal address from their own family, circle of friends or through club members” and that personal contact must continue to be the focus: “hardly anyone feels addressed by advertisements in print media or digital media alone”. (Study, p. 19; emphasis mw)


Where and how today’s youth are volunteering

More than 90 % of the respondents have already carried out voluntary work, currently the figure is 51 %. The focus is on sports, culture and leisure, church/religion, education and village/quarter. But the young people also do militia work in the social/charitable sector, in environmental and animal protection and in health care. In politics, on the other hand, there is still some catching up to do; only 4% are active here (Study, p. 13).
In terms of the activities taken on, the first priority is participation in festivals and events: 60% of those surveyed have already committed themselves to this. This proportion is perhaps higher than in previous generations. But the other answers are similar to those 20 or 30 years ago: In second place, a high 41%, especially young women, are enthusiastic about educational tasks such as childcare and help with homework, and 40%, mostly young men, are involved in sports as coaches, referees or in other functions. Many also take on board positions or office work, take part in signature and collection campaigns or in nature and animal protection, and a gratifying proportion (19%) provides personal help for people (Study, p. 14). More than half are willing to spend one to two hours a week on voluntary work in addition to school and work, and one third even three to five hours (Study, p. 28).

Personal contact and accompaniment are decisive

Although all participants regularly use one or more digital media, 82% state that they have started their activities “on the basis of a personal address from their own family, circle of friends or through club members” and that personal contact must continue to be the focus: “hardly anyone feels addressed by advertisements in print media or digital media alone”. (Study, p. 19; emphasis mw) A remarkable finding.
Equally important for young people is the personal support they receive when volunteering. More than 80% say yes to the question of whether they have been sufficiently introduced and accompanied, and 89% of those under 18 say so (Study p. 20). Adequate care also includes the transfer of an appropriate degree of responsibility. 89% state that they felt that their level of responsibility was exactly right (Study, p. 21f.).
Even for communication within clubs or organisations, personal contact is by far the most important factor: on a rating scale of 1 to 7 (the best value is 1), it scores an average of 1.91 points, ahead of chats (2.98), social media (3.75), e-mail (3.81), telephone (4.44) and, interestingly, far behind SMS (5.08) (study, p. 30). It seems that many young people like to take a break from the constant stream of information and chats on their mobile phones.
Conclusion of the so far mentioned results: Obviously, the promotion of younger generation in the various organisations is not that bad. The older members should not let themselves be unsettled because their club life could not be “modern” enough for the youth. The best way to get in touch with the “digital natives” is through the personal relationship. The fact that they are more experienced in dealing with digital media can also be used positively: Many will be happy to use these skills for the benefit of all, where it makes sense.

Central importance of the role models in family and school

The value of voluntary work in their families plays an important role so that young people can find the thread to participate in society. When at the family table the father talks about yesterday’s fire brigade exercise, the mother about her experiences as a Schulpflegerin, the big sister about the visits she is allowed to make to the old people’s home as part of a class project - then the younger siblings become curious and are encouraged to try something like this.
More than two thirds of the volunteers say that volunteer work is anchored in their families, in rural areas even 72%. The authors conclude that “the influence of the parental home is an important basis for early awareness of voluntary work” (Study, p. 26). This is not surprising for anyone familiar with pedagogy and psychology, but it is nice that today’s authors of studies also include and appreciate this correlation.
However, one should think about that the topic of voluntary work is not sufficiently addressed in the school and university years of many young people: High 78% mark the answers “not at all” or “rather little”. The authors point out that schools and educational institutions should increasingly take on this task: “These places offer young people opportunities to get to know democratic structures and opportunities for participation and thus to convey important experiences that can be the key to further initiatives of their own” (Study, p. 27). A visit to a community assembly or the local fire brigade, but also a class or apprentice camp in which young people renovate a footpath in a mountain community, can be experiences with an impact on the future.

“Enjoyment” of the matter – yes, of course, but not as the only motive

The main motive for volunteering is “enjoyment of the matter”, 82% cite this as one reason among others (study, p. 22). However, we would not do our youth justice if we judged this result to be “typical of the fun generation”. For those who only want to have fun do not necessarily do militia work. But if you want to get involved voluntarily, why not choose a job that gives you satisfaction? At that time we also took part in the scouts or decorated the schoolhouse together with our classmates for a party, because we liked to do it.
Other important motives mentioned by many are “shared experiences with others” or “because friends were also there”.
But the vast majority of young people also look beyond their own horizons: 61% cite the fact that they want to make a social contribution/help others as a motive, and almost a third want to “do something meaningful”. It is also gratifying that about half of them hope to “expand their own abilities”. It is good that they also want to learn something through meaningful action, and only to a small extent in relation to their own education: In over 60% of cases, voluntary work is not or only slightly linked to it (Study, p. 23). This means that not only “credits” are collected.
The personal relationship is also in the foreground with regard to the appreciation of their commitment: For 81% personal gratitude is important or rather important, only 2% tick “unimportant”. A letter of recommendation or confirmation of voluntary commitment is also important for around 50% (Study, p. 32). This is understandable as young people are at the beginning of their careers.

Conclusion: Volunteering for the common good is important to the younger generation

Finally, we give the young participants in the study the floor. Apart from individual negative experiences, which are primarily the result of a lack of appreciation or temporary unduly burdensome besides studying, working and having a family, the young people express their positive experiences in a very differentiated way (Study, p. 24):

  • Gratitude, joy and appreciation from others;
  • helping others makes you happy and gives fulfilment;
  • establishing new contacts and developing friendships;
  • volunteering is connected to a lot of fun and great experiences;
  • expanding one’s own abilities and personal character building;
  • strong sense of community, unique experiences with others;
  • broadening of the mind, insight into other topics, change of perspective;
  • opportunity to take on responsibility and actively participate in shaping things.

Fortunately 94% answer the final question with “Yes”: “Do you think it is important for people to volunteer for the common good?”    •

1    Jordan, Daniel. Freiwilligenarbeit & zivilgesellschaftliches Engagement. Studie: Wie Digital Natives die Freiwilligenarbeit verändern. (Volunteering &civic participation. Study: How Digital Natives change volunteering). FHS St.Gallen, Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften (University of applied sciences), 2019

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