A group of young and diverse volunteers providing boxes off food.
Photo by cottonbro studio.

On the back of the coronation of King Charles, several of the UK’s most prominent volunteer-involving charities have launched a national volunteering initiative, the Big Help Out. Organisers anticipate that over 6 million people will participate in volunteering opportunities over the coronation holiday weekend. But volunteering trends have been going steadily downwards since the early 2000s, according to reliable national social surveys. The proportion of the population in England engaged in formal volunteering on at least an annual basis varied between 37 and 45% from 2001, but the figure reported for 2021-22 was only 30% of the adult population. For those volunteering at least monthly, the proportionate drop was greater still – from 29% to just 17%.

While a general decline has been noted, less has been said about variations between groups of the population. In 2001, for the population aged under 65, between 37 and 44% engaged in formal volunteering at least once a year. By the time of the 2021-22 survey, the figures were between 27 and 32%. The exception was the 25-34 age group, for which only 19% reported volunteering, compared to 37% in 2001. So, for that group, volunteering has just about halved, in a decade. In contrast, for those aged over 75, volunteering rates remained constant, at just over one-quarter of that group.

The lesson from previous similar initiatives like the 2012 London Olympics, is that temporary enthusiasm for volunteering wasn’t sustained by one event. Participation is influenced much less by episodic events like the coronation and much more by the factors influencing whether individuals have the resources, capacity and willingness to engage.

Previous research shows how adverse economic events have a negative impact on civic engagement. Sociologists in the late 1950s were already pointing out the importance of “orderly careers” as a basis for engagement in voluntary action. Today’s labour market, and more generally the social and political environment, are anything but orderly and predictable, and younger age groups have borne the brunt of them. It seems highly likely that these conditions are inhibiting the extent to which those groups are participating in voluntary action, and it is likely to take far more than monarchical endorsement to persuade them to take part.