Giving and getting -- more Baby Boomers look to volunteerism

Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2001

CHICAGO (AP) -- It is the largest, most affluent and probably most self-indulgent generation in American history.

But for increasing numbers of Baby Boomers, it isn't enough to just live long and prosper.

Having attained reasonable financial security, many are looking to get back in touch with long-shelved ideals from the '60s as they change their focus from success to significance. This quest to do well by doing good might ultimately lead to career or lifestyle changes, but for millions it is finding an outlet in volunteerism.

A Motorola executive gets involved as a Big Brother. A commodities trader helps out weekly at a hospital pediatrics ward. A speech pathologist volunteers at a homeless shelter after being bothered for years by the public's indifference.

Examples abound of Boomers -- those born during the population surge of 1946-64 -- committing to volunteering as they hit middle age, even if a majority remain preoccupied with careers, families and leisure interests.

''It's a big, positive part of my week,'' said Andy Harrison, 45, who trades soybeans and bond futures for a living and volunteers one evening a week at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. ''I really look forward to it.''

Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, said volunteering reflects the need for social and community involvement at a time when most Americans are segregated and insulated from society.

Altruism isn't the main reason volunteerism is alive and well among Boomers, the Seattle-based author said.

''When you get involved, you get something back,'' said Loeb, who advocates volunteering as a first step toward social activism. ''A lot of people tell me they get a sense of dignity from doing something -- 'I can get up and look myself in the mirror.'''

Whether the increased involvement portends a change in attitude about money among the 78 million Baby Boomers, it may be too early to say. But Bob Buford, a cable TV magnate turned venture philanthropist, said that's certainly the case with richer Boomers.

''There's a need to do something that matters, not something that is strictly for the money,'' said Buford, whose book ''Halftime'' chronicled his own, faith-based shift away from business and toward helping others.

One of his associates, 47-year-old Carl LaBarbera of Long Beach, Calif., sold his family's aerospace business in 1998 and started a foundation to help the underprivileged.

''We've been blessed in a way that our parents weren't,'' LaBarbera said. ''In addition to that, maybe we came out of the '60s and '70s with a deluded idea of how to change the world. Now we recognize that being constructive with our gifts and giving of ourselves is part of the solution.''

For the less wealthy, working a few hours a week is a more realistic way to meet those needs, be it working with children, teens in crisis, battered women, people with disabilities, AIDS patients or the abandoned elderly.

Harrison, an ex-stockbroker, admits it's not always easy to be a soothing, relaxed volunteer when he's had a difficult day at the Chicago Board Trade. But after he's cheered up a lonely or scared child or pitched in to help the medical staff in a crisis, he always feels rewarded.

''A lot of people my age spend a lot of time going out to dinner, out to bars, out on the town, but you can get tired of that,'' he said. ''It feels good to do something for others.''

Gail Taxy, 53, of Highland Park, Ill., traces an inclination toward social activism back to her childhood and a father who taught her to root for the underdog. Once her own children were grown and she retired as a speech pathologist and home health therapist, she decided to volunteer regularly at Connections for the Homeless, a shelter in Evanston, Ill., where she's worked for three years.

''I knew I didn't like the apathy I saw around me,'' she said. ''I figured if I could find a way to be part of the solution to help the homeless then I wouldn't be part of the problem.''

The volunteering trend is evident in the Peace Corps. The number of Baby Boomers serving as volunteers or trainees with the agency jumped from 184 in 2000 to 286 this year.

''A lot of couples in their 50s and divorced people are going overseas with the Peace Corps,'' said spokeswoman Susan Buchanan. ''It's the right time in their lives -- they've fulfilled their obligations to their families and their careers and they want to do something more idealistic.''

The generation's idealism and drive is even changing the nature of volunteerism.

Lyn Stone, director of volunteers for the New York-based Jewish Guild for the Blind for the last 20 years, said Baby Boomers are not content to simply stuff envelopes like volunteers in years past.

''People say Baby Boomers are spoiled,'' she said. ''I can't say that they're less giving or more giving than other generations. But you have to cater to their needs.

''They need more challenging positions. They want something to be meaningful and interesting.''

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