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Posted on Thu, Feb 24, 2011 : 9:19 a.m.

Generation Y, Millennials: Do motives matter when it comes to volunteering?

By Wayne Baker

0223 ov flag and ball and chain american service.jpg

Millennials are volunteering in record numbers, but what are their motives?

Photo courtesy of Read the Spirit

Do you know where Generation Y is headed, besides into debt? Service! We seem to be flocking toward serving America. Today, we'll look at why that poses other problems for our generation.

All this week, we're looking at challenges facing Generation Y — those aged 18-29, sometimes called Millennials or even the Boomerang Generation. Tuesday, we looked at Millennials' boundless optimism. As a generation, we’re restlessly searching for options. Some of us travel, some go back to school, and many of us compete to the death for unpaid internships.

What do these options all have in common? They’re incredibly expensive and add to the huge debt Millennials will spend decades trying to pay off.

The average college student graduates $24,000 in debt. With alarming unemployment levels, this kind of debt leaves many students looking toward options such as federally funded service programs that defer or cancel student loans — especially Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or the armed forces. Recruitment numbers for all three have dramatically increased over the past five years. In fact, applicant numbers for AmeriCorps, which includes the popular Teach for America program, nearly tripled in the past two years.

Though these programs are often short-term, they offer young adults a meaningful way to pass the time as they wait for more career opportunities to open up. As a result, Millennials gain needed experience, make important connections and give back to their communities and country.

Researchers maintain that other factors aside from the economy also contribute to the surge in service among young people. National tragedies — including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as well as President Obama’s call to service — have encouraged Millennials to act for change.

Whatever is driving our generation in this direction, acceptance rates in these programs are edging toward the very employment numbers young adults are trying to avoid in a competitive job market. Teach for America, which boasts recruitment of the most “elite college graduates,” accepts a mere 12 percent of all applicants — a rate on par or lower than acceptance at most Ivy League universities. Most young adults looking into service programs are left in the same discouraging, unemployed position as before.

What are young graduates left to do? Teach for America promises to double the number of corps members it accepts by 2015, but is this enough to change prospects for the millions of Millennials?

Extreme competition for service positions may not be the only problem with increased popularity for volunteering.

According to an annual study at the University of California-Los Angeles, more than 70 percent of college freshmen believe the chief benefit of college is to increase one’s earning power — the highest percentage ever reported since the study was first conducted in 1971. Pair this with the historically high number of Millennials volunteering, and some could argue these two bits of data refute one another. (Care to read the report? Here’s a four-page PDF of the UCLA findings.)

What do these figures mean? In short, volunteerism looks good on a resume — most employers highly regard community service, and some universities even require students to log hours as volunteers. Many service programs attract new applicants by offering benefit packages that include job placement support, priority for federal employment or highly-valued networking opportunities. Recent graduates are quickly jumping on these opportunities.

So, are Millennials helping others — only to help themselves?

Statistics from programs like Teach for America tell us otherwise. More than 30 percent of the program’s alumni stay in the classroom after completing their two years of service, and more than 60 percent remain in the field of education. The Peace Corps boasts high percentages of returned volunteers in the nonprofit and development sectors. Intensive application processes as well as grueling work assignments may also help ensure that those whose only motives are self-interest are quickly weeded out.

How do you see the relationship between motives and outcomes? Does volunteering change a person’s path in life? Or, are volunteers entering these programs with intentions to continue in similar sectors? And, are young people helping — to help themselves?

Do motives matter?
If you’ve signed up to volunteer, what motivated you?
How should we weigh our need for money  against our hope of helping?

Gayle Campbell is a recent U of M graduate and the Media Director at, an online magazine promoting civil dialogue on American ethics and values. Gayle can be reached at



Sun, Feb 27, 2011 : 4:34 a.m.

Applying for a position where you are going to get leadership experience, lots of responsibility and get paid a decent wage with benefits is a good option regardless of the economic climate. Many of these programs offer just that. But more than that, I think our generation is increasingly drawn to these programs because they tie the practical with their ideals and need to have a job that has a direct impact on people's lives.

Will Warner

Fri, Feb 25, 2011 : 1:34 p.m.

I went with a group of Saline High School students to the Mississippi Gulf Coast a year after Katrina. We found the place still devastated of course, but we met there several teams of AmeriCorp voluntees. I was very impressed by their maturity and competence. As also happens in the military, these young people were carrying leadership resposibily and authority at a young age. When we got home, I tried to volunteer myself with AmeriCorp (in any capacity) but could not get anyone to return my phone calls. Nevertheless, I still like what I saw of the voluneers on the ground. I'm sure it was a life-changing experience for them, I and would look favorably upon job applicants with AmeriCorp or Teach for America on their resumes.


Fri, Feb 25, 2011 : 2:12 a.m.

Nothing wrong with making a living and gaining skills that people are willing to pay for...

Mike Hartwell

Thu, Feb 24, 2011 : 5:37 p.m.

Being a Boomer, with grown up kids one grad school one undergrad. My opinion is the author is making the same mistake a lot of people do: 1. Once people treat college as a competition (gateway to wages) Then the only schools for winners become the elite schools. Elite meaning expensive. There are all sorts of ways to get a good college education and not be $24k in debt. 2. The author questions the motivations for volunteering. This is foolish and misguided. It does not matter why people volunteer. Do not investigate gift horses mouths. However, I am disturbed by the organizations that recruit volunteers are beginning to treat the offers as competition (Teach for America). Once you are on the inside make it difficult for newbies. This is consolidation of power, office politics, and defeats the purpose of getting help to people that need it. 3. So what if business look kindly on community service. I would like to see businesses take it seriously and not just use it to gloss over other predatory activity.