Age and Cohort Trends in Formal Volunteering and Informal Helping in Later Life: Evidence From the Health and Retirement Study

Demography. 2023 Feb 1;60(1):99-122. doi: 10.1215/00703370-10395916.


Formal volunteering holds great importance for the recipients of volunteer services, individuals who volunteer, and the wider society. However, how much recent birth cohorts volunteer in middle and late adulthood compared with earlier birth cohorts is not well understood. Even less well-known are the age and cohort trends in informal helping provided to friends and neighbors in later adulthood. Using longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study, we estimated age and cohort trends in formal volunteering and informal helping from 1998 to 2018 for a wide range of birth cohorts born between 1909 and 1958. We used multivariate, multilevel models based on Bayesian generalized modeling methods to estimate the probabilities of volunteering and informal helping simultaneously in a single model. Despite having advantages in human and health capital, recent birth cohorts showed volunteering levels in late adulthood that are similar to those of their predecessors. Moreover, more recent birth cohorts were consistently less engaged in informal helping than earlier birth cohorts throughout the observation period. More research is needed to illuminate the sociocultural drivers of changes in helping behaviors and overall prosocial and civic engagement.

Keywords: Bayesian methods; Civic engagement; Generations; Multivariate models; Older adults.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Humans
  • Retirement*
  • Volunteers