Just a few years ago, there was mounting talk that baby boomers — secure in their wealth and self-proclaimed benevolence — were on the cusp of once again changing the world and redefining themselves in the process.
This time, some maintained, they would erase the "Me Generation" label to become “Generation Give.” Boomers would transform American society with an onslaught of unprecedented charitable giving and volunteerism.
Then reality set in.
(MORE: It's Time For Boomers to Fix Their Bad Brand)
Giving Squeezed by Financial Meltdown
Although boomers gave an average of $2,606 per household to charity in 2007, the U.S. financial meltdown of 2008 dealt a sharp blow to their generosity.
In 2009 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), the average boomer household made charitable contributions of just $2,160, a decline of 17 percent from 2007.
“Everyone thought they were going to keep making more money,” says Christine W. Letts, the Rita E. Hauser senior lecturer in the Practice of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership Harvard Kennedy School. “The recession really caused people to pause.”
Older and younger households trimmed their charitable giving by much less than the boomers, cutting back by roughly 5 percent, according to Paul G. Schervish and John J. Havens of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. (Older households' contributions slid from $2,909 to $2,755, while donations from younger ones dropped to $928, on average, from $964.)
But it would be wrong to call the boomers Scrooge-like. Far from it.
The Most Generous Generation
Boomers give more total dollars to charity than any other generation, roughly $47 billion a year, according to The Next Generation of American Giving report by nonprofit consultants Convio and Sea Change Strategies and Edge Research, a market research firm. Although boomers head up 38 percent of U.S. households, they're responsible for 50.3 percent of all charitable contributions.
(MORE: How to Check Out a Charity Before You Give)
Philanthropic experts expect this generation's capacity for giving to increase over time, partly because of an estimated $27 trillion in inheritances they and their offspring could see over the next four decades, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“Boomers will receive the greatest wealth transfer in history, but a substantially larger transfer of wealth will be given by them than was given to them,” says Schervish. “I’m optimistic.”
A Drop-Off in Boomer Volunteering
The number of boomers who volunteer also declined in recent years, sparking concern at nonprofits.
About 22 million boomers — 28.8 percent of the generation — volunteered in 2010. In 2003, roughly a third of boomers (33.5 percent) volunteered, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).
Experts attribute some of the drop-off to a natural shift from one life stage to the next. Now in their mid-60s, the oldest boomers are well past the peak ages for volunteering: the mid-30s and 40s.
But the Great Recession also had a dampening effect. As experts point out, people are least likely to volunteer when they are unemployed.
Fortunately, as the economy has recovered a bit, so has boomer volunteerism. Last year, 30.6 percent of people ages 45 to 54 — and 28.1 percent of those 55 to 64 — did volunteer work. That's up slightly from 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To attract more volunteers in this age group, “nonprofits need to consider how they are engaging them and providing purpose for their passions,” says Dr. Erwin Tan, director of senior corps at CNCS. "They need to look at this generation as a growing national resource with the skills, intelligence and experience to make a difference."
Put simply, boomers don’t want to just lick stamps and stuff envelopes.
“They want to give back, but they also want to play a discernible role and they want to make a difference,” says Mary Bleiberg, director of ReServe, a nonprofit that matches professionals ages 55 and older with service opportunities at nonprofits and public institutions in Baltimore, Miami, Milwaukee, Newark and New York City.
Will There Be a Game Change?
"The level of interest for giving back remains strong” among boomers, says Jim Emerman, executive vice president at Encore.org, a nonprofit think tank on boomers, work and social progress. (You can read Encore.org articles about encore careers on Next Avenue.)
That said, time will tell whether this generation will ultimately be game-changers for charitable giving and volunteering.
“If they are, there could be massive benefits for society,” says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “Everyone’s sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting to see.”