adtapon duangnim/shutterstock

adtapon duangnim/shutterstock

Facing multiple economic challenges in making the transition to adulthood, young Americans aged 22 to 35 are volunteering and giving to charities less than they used to, a new study has found.

“Many of the trends among young adults that we report,” the researchers wrote, “should raise red flags about the future of charitable behaviors in the United States.”

The study, based on census and other data from 2002 to 2015, was released by the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute. It examined five milestones associated with adulthood: completing college, getting a job, marriage, becoming a parent, and living independently.

While young adults aged 22 to 35 have become better educated—35 percent graduated from college in 2015, up from 29 percent in 2005—their giving and volunteering declined significantly. Volunteering declined from a high of 38 percent in the period covered by the study to 31 percent in 2015, while giving dropped from a high of 60 percent in 2011 to 56 percent in 2015.

Behind the Trend

“These declines may be due in part to the impact of student loan debt which, a growing body of research suggests, is at least partially responsible for delays in the transition to adulthood,” wrote the researchers.

In terms of employment, the percentage of young adults working full-time decreased from a high of 67 percent in 2005 to 63 percent in 2015, while those who were unemployed and also not looking for work rose from 17 percent to 20 percent in the same 10-year period. Young adults employed full-time in 2015 were more likely to volunteer (22 percent) and give to charity (46 percent) than their unemployed counterparts, fewer of whom volunteered (19 percent) or gave (28 percent).

“These trends are important, given that employment is positively associated with volunteering and giving,” wrote the researchers. “Paid work helps strengthen social networks along with economic wellbeing.”

Another life event strongly associated with volunteering is marriage, which improves household wealth and socioeconomic status. But the proportion of young adults who are married and living with their spouse declined from 45 percent in 2005 to 38 percent in 2015.

Married young adults were more likely to volunteer (27 percent) in 2015 than their never-married counterparts (18 percent). They were also far more likely to give to charity (54 percent) than their never-married peers (32 percent).

The Demography of Charity

Because being a parent introduces people to numerous opportunities to volunteer and serve their communities by giving, a falling birthrate among young people is another troubling trend, the researchers wrote. They cited 2018 data revealing the lowest birth rate in the United States in more than 30 years.

In 2015, young adults with children were more likely to volunteer (24 percent) than their childless counterparts (20 percent), while the difference in giving was more stark: Young parents were much more likely to give to charity (47 percent) than young adults with no kids (37 percent).

The ability among 22 to 35-year-olds to live independently was associated with a higher rate of both giving (48 percent) and volunteering  (25 percent) than it was among young adults living in someone else’s household, who both gave (29 percent) and volunteered (15 percent) at lower rates. The researchers found that the percentage of young adults living independently declined from 67 percent to 65 percent between 2009 and 2015.

At least some of young adults’ financial challenges can be traced to negative effects of the Great Recession which, as the researchers wrote, “persisted for several years into the economic recovery,” despite its official end in June 2009.

“The recession ended before a lot of people thought it did, and economic conditions did not snap back into place,” said Nathan Dietz, a senior researcher at the Do Good Institute who helped compile the results of the study.

“Someday these young people will be called on to replace those who are now mainstays in the philanthropic sector,” Dietz said. “The question is whether young people will overcome the challenges that have affected their ability to reach traditional adulthood and the on-ramps of philanthropy.” 

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