Why It’s Wrong to Assume that All Service Participants are Young

How branding national service as an opportunity only for young people does more harm to the movement than good.

Christian Witkin for TIME Magazine

Christian Witkin for TIME Magazine

While many service corps do have upper age limits — City Year, AmeriCorps*NCCC, Public Allies, and many other team-based programs — most programs do not have an upper age limit.

In fact, several programs specifically recruit professionalsExperience Corps, Atlas Corps, CUSO-VSO (the Canadian VSO), Volunteers for Prosperity, and United Nations Volunteers just to name a few. Others like Peace Corps and AmeriCorps*VISTA recruit almost entirely college graduates because of the skill required in carrying out service.

And yet when people speak of service they almost always describe it as an opportunity for young people to give back, receive scholarship money, develop leadership skills, and go an an adventure before settling down with a real job.

What difference does it make if most people think of national or international service as a pursuit for the young?

Here are some reasons:

Recruitment:

If we assume only young people will enlist in a citizen service corps, we won’t recruit new corps members as creatively and as broadly as we should. For example, limiting information sessions to college campuses. How and where else can programs get the word out about their opportunities?

I’m thinking of the message itself as well as where the message is placed. Does your brochure feature photos only of young people? Does your Public Service Announcement mention the term “college grads” without mentioning they don’t have to be recent college grads?

Especially in rural communities where placing service participants can be challenging, and in this era of expanding national service opportunity, getting the word out that you can participate at any age can make a huge difference in your program’s ability to recruit new members.

Training:

If programs assume everyone is young, then they won’t serve the training needs of all participants. … Like those who come into the corps with well-honed work-related skills, and a curiosity born from diverse life experiences.

Where a younger corps member might need a lot of help negotiating a workaday routine with their supervisor (since this is the first full-time professional experience a younger member might have had), an older corps member might be in an ideal position to design the training for younger members around developing professional habits.

Further, if we assume everyone is young we might miss the special needs of older corps members: they may need more help with computer technology, communicating efectively with teenagers, or adjusting to the logic of a nonprofit organization or school (if they’ve spent their career in the for-profit world).

Project descriptions:

Assuming corps members are all in their young 20s becomes a problem for your program and host agencies because you may create project descriptions that don’t dream big enough. Corps members of any age achieve greatness during their term. But can your host sites expect even more?

Especially given the funding that’s coming this year through the stimulus, it’s a good time to start expecting a higher level of expertise among incoming corps members, to devise complex projects that can help create jobs and get the local economy going again.

Benefits of Service:

RPCV Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and allies have introduced legislation that would help make the Eli Segal AmeriCorps Education Award transferable to a participant’s kids or grandkids. Bingo! Older corps members have benefitted less than others regarding one of the only material benefits of national service—the $4,725 scholarship that as of right now can only go to your own student loan debt, or tuition costs.

Assuming that all service corps members are all still grappling with college and grad school costs of their own risks shutting older folks out. An even more flexible option may be for the Education Award to be put in a Roth IRA, so older members could use it for retirement, education or housing. That idea would struggle politically, and raise the cost of national service because more people would use their Ed Award if the option were available. But I like it!

Career transitions:

Older people have a hard enough time with the career transition as it is (at least if you believe Barbara Ehrenreich’s dismal account of looking for work at middle age). An employer might regard a term of AmeriCorps service on the resume of an older adult as suspcious. Why would a professional take time out to do a year of service, unless something went terribly wrong with their last job search?

Of course we all know that older participants have as much to gain from their experiences in a corps as anyone. And it’s important for anyone doing national service to translate the value of their service to a hiring manager.

But the image of national service as an endeavor of the young is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that it makes it hard for hiring managers to see beyond the stereotype.

Chris Dodd’s recent Service For All initiative, as well as the image Service Nation is hoping to convey (see the diversity of people featured in this TIME Magazine photo) point to efforts to expand the image and substance of service as an opportunity for all people to serve.

But people in the service community have to step up too, to broaden the call to serve to the rising generation, as well as to people who were around to answer President Kennedy’s call back in the early 60s, and everyone in between.

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2 thoughts on “Why It’s Wrong to Assume that All Service Participants are Young

  1. Amy,

    Terrific post. As you know, Experience Corps has been working this turf for years, now with 2,000 members over 55 serving roughly 20,000 kids as tutors and mentors. And the new national service legislation (both Kennedy-Hatch and Dodd-Cochran) both call out the service opportunities (and obligations) of experienced Americans.

    We linked to this post on Encore.org at http://www.encore.org/community/encore-nation/discussions/new-era-service#comment-500.

    all best,

    David

  2. I believe it IS wrong to assume that all service participants are Young. However; it should be pointed out here that MOST Government sponsored Encore career or Entrepreneurial training programs are directed on purpose to serve only the 18-35 age group.

    Last Friday afternoon I was in a Government conference room meeting in Edmonton, AB Canada attempting to get more support for Seniors business services and mentoring programs. The reply in general was that this government sponsored department was already serving the Seniors Group on a broad basis. There seemed to be no understanding that training for Encore careers or for Seniorpreneur careers needs a somewhat different approach and some extra funding. We need to write & call ALL Government officials getting them to shift their focus to better serve all the different groups in this changing society.

    Joe Wasylyk
    Seniorpreneur

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