Don't Listen to the Haters — Millennials Are a Lot More Charitable Than You'd Think

Source: AP
Source: AP

When was the last time you decided to pitch in? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it probably wasn't very recently.

Data released last week shows that only 18.7% of 20- to 24-year-olds participated in volunteer work between September 2013 and September 2014, with those aged 25 to 34 not far behind at 22% participation. Percentages rose considerably among those aged 35 to 44 before tapering off among successively older groups.

So what's the deal? Are millennials lazy and selfish? That certainly appears to be the implication of a recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek.

In "Most Millennials Can't Do a Single Nice Thing for Someone Else," Bloomberg reporter Akane Otani offers a stern chastisement to millennials, speculating that "maybe aging is the antidote to being self-absorbed."

While likely appealing to Bloomberg Businessweek's more aged readership, the article fails to dig deeper into the numbers and consider much beyond the original data set. Even the title is misleading: Since no age group came close to surpassing 50% volunteering participation, the article could just as easily have been titled "Most People Can't Do a Single Nice Thing for Someone Else."

But that's not how volunteering organizations see it. "We don't really see that trend so much," Steve Streicher, director of communications and marketing at New York Cares, told Mic. According to its website, New York Cares is "the city's largest volunteer management organization," running volunteer programs for 1,300 nonprofits, city agencies and public schools throughout the New York area.

Streicher expressed utter disbelief for the finding, at least based on New York Cares' experience. "The 18-to-30 age group is one of our key age groups. Every year we have approximately 12,000 volunteers between 18 and 30 that come through our doors."

In explaining the bureau's finding, one could argue that millennials have a great deal of experience volunteering in the form of unpaid internships. In many cases, interns in America even pay to "volunteer" their services to companies that have no intention of hiring them. This kind of volunteerism was probably not counted by the BLS.

Millennials volunteer — even while they're in debt: According to research from the Project on Student Debt, 69% of graduating seniors left both public and private colleges an average of $28,400 in the hole. The national student loan default rate stood at 13.7% last year. Unlike many other types of debt, student debt is uniquely difficult to discharge and often many people can be stuck paying far more in interest than they ever borrowed. 

Add in an anemic job market, and a millennial might be forgiven for having less time to volunteer than their more established elders. The up-by-your-bootstraps, starting-with-nothing narratives of the parents and grandparents of millennials sound inspiring, but they overlook the fact that many millennials begin their professional lives with considerably less than nothing.

On top of all that, other evidence shows that millennials are more likely to volunteer than Baby Boomers when they were young adults, with the National Conference on Citizenship commenting that "millennials so far appear to be considerably more civically engaged than their immediate predecessors, 'Generation X.'"

For Streicher, that would probably be no surprise. "I do think young people are more community-minded," he said. "[They] look at other ways of measuring success."

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Jon Levine

Jon Levine is a staff writer at Mic, covering politics and people. He is based in New York and can be reached at JLevine@mic.com.

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