Children undertaking volunteering and service related activities from a young age, with strong support networks in place, are more likely to develop a habit of lifelong service, say researchers. 

The University of Birmingham research found that participants who first engaged with service or volunteering under the age of 10 were more than twice as likely to have developed a ‘habit’ of social action than those who began from 16-18.

Strong support networks and encouragement from schools were identified as key factors contributing to a lifelong ‘habit of service’ and social action.

The study, A Habit of Service, examined responses from over 4,500 young people - 3,300 of whom had been involved in youth social action programmes in the past 12 months.

It was found those within the ‘habit’ group were more likely to be female and they participated more frequently in a wider range of ‘service’ activities – such as helping their local community, volunteering or mentoring.

Dr Tom Harrison, University of Birmingham and co-author of the report, published by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, stressed the practical importance of the research for social action providers across the country:

‘These findings will help those in the voluntary sector plan and deliver youth social action programmes that support young people to cultivate a habit of service.

‘The more people who contribute to the common good, the more likely we are to flourish as a nation’.

The report found that the quality principles of social action, identified by charity Step Up To Serve, correlated with young people who have made a habit of service.

In particular, those with a ‘habit of service’ were more likely to have volunteering opportunities embedded in their school, college or university, and were more likely to feel they had the time, skills and confidence to participate. 

The findings highlight the role that schools and other institutions can play in facilitating young people’s engagement in social action, particularly by embedding character education and other enrichment activities.

Enjoyment of service activities was also found to be important, with participants who reported enjoying activities ‘a great deal’ 47% more likely to be in the habit group.

Those who had developed a ‘habit’ were also more likely to have parents and friends participating in similar activities.
Overall, friends’ involvement had a more significant effect than parents’, boosting participation by 14% within the habit group, and 12% amongst non-habit participants.

The report is launched in collaboration with the #iwill campaign, a longstanding partner of the Jubilee Centre in researching youth social action.

Writing in the report’s foreword, Dame Julia Cleverdon and Amanda Jordan, co-founders of charity Step Up To Serve who oversee #iwill, emphasised both the societal and the personal benefits social action can have:

‘…social action not only improves communities, but at the same time it improves the lives of the young people who undertake it, developing their character and skills in the process – what we call the ‘double benefit’ of youth social action’.

For interview requests or for a copy of the report, please contact Rebecca Hume, Communications Manager, University of Birmingham on +44 (0)121 414 9041 or email the press office

For out of hours media enquiries, please call: +44 (0) 7789 921 165

  • A Habit of Service is co-authored by Tom Harrison, Director of Education at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
  • The concept of the ‘double benefit’ is at the heart of social action – highlighting the mutual benefits for young people and their communities.
  • The report showed that those young people who had developed a habit of service were better able to understand the social impact of their participation, as well as identify how they had developed their character to become engaged and responsible citizens later in life.
  • Participants were drawn from programmes across the UK, including the Government’s flagship volunteering initiative, the National Citizen Service.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked among the world's top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is a world-leader in rigorous academic research into character education. The Centre was founded in 2012 by Professor James Arthur.
  • Based at the University of Birmingham, it has a dedicated team of 30 academics, who specialise in a range of disciplines: philosophy, psychology, education, theology and sociology.
  • The Jubilee Centre operates on the basis that teaching good character, which can be demonstrated through moral virtues such as honesty, self-control, fairness, and respect, is possible and practicable. It is about equipping children and adults with the ability to make the right decisions.
  • The Centre works in partnership with schools and national professional bodies on a range of projects that contribute to a renewal of character and values in individuals and in society.
  • The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is a world-leader in rigorous academic research into character education. The Centre was founded in 2012 by Professor James Arthur.