Volunteering benefits young adults' wellbeing and confidence as adults

New research, published by the ESRI, and produced in partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) and the Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD), shows that volunteering can improve young adults’ life outcomes. Using data on children born in 1998 from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study, the findings show that 20-year-olds who volunteer are more satisfied with their lives and are more confident of themselves as adults. Volunteering can also protect young people’s mental health from the negative effects of living in socially disadvantaged communities.

The report provides detailed insights into what factors drive volunteering and political engagement at age 20. In particular, it sheds light on the role that growing up in an urban or rural area plays in their participation.

How involved are young people in civic and political engagement?

  • Around a third of 20-year-olds were involved in volunteering. Over half were involved in some kind of political activity, such as signing a petition or contacting a politician/councillor in the past year, but only one in six had been more actively involved, such as joining a political party/group or demonstrating. Most young people said they were not very interested in politics (with only 12% rating their interest as 8 or more out of 10), but most (72%) were registered to vote.

Which young people are more likely to be civically and politically engaged?

  • Young men were more involved in sports volunteering (as they are in organised sports more generally) but young women are somewhat more involved in other types of volunteering (e.g., for social, or charitable, organisations). Women were more likely to be registered to vote and to be involved in political activities, which likely reflects their involvement in the campaign to repeal the Constitutional ban on abortion around the time of the survey (2018/19).
  • Young people from more socially and economically advantaged backgrounds were more likely to volunteer, take part in political activities, be registered to vote and be interested in politics.

Does where young people live make a difference for their engagement?

  • Young people who grew up in urban and rural areas had different patterns of engagement. Rural youth were more involved in volunteering at age 17 than urban youth, and more involved in sports volunteering at age 20, while rural and urban youth were just as involved in volunteering for other types of organisations. However, rural youth engaged in fewer political activities than urban youth at age 20, although they were just as interested in politics.
  • Growing up in communities with better access to facilities (such as youth clubs and sports clubs) and better access to public transport is linked with more sports volunteering in adulthood among all young people, and more non-sports-related volunteering among urban youth.
  • On the other hand, living in a more disorderly area (with graffiti or public drinking/drug-taking), or with fewer leisure facilities and spaces to meet, appears to prompt some young people to get more involved in political activities.

What role does young people’s education play in their levels of engagement?

  • Education and schooling play a key role in young people’s engagement. Those who took part in Transition Year, who liked school and got on well there, and who went on to higher education were more civically and politically engaged at age 20.
  • Young people who were more involved in after-school activities as children and teenagers were more civically and politically engaged later on in life. However, the types of activities matter. Those who took part in non-sporting activities, such as cultural activities (like music or drama) or organised groups (such as Scouts and Guides), were more involved in political activities and non-sports volunteering in adulthood. Those who were more involved in sports activities engaged in more volunteering for sporting organisations but were less politically engaged.

 Does civic and political engagement benefit young people?

  • Civic engagement has benefits for the community but also for young people themselves. Young people who volunteer are more satisfied with their own lives. They are also more confident of themselves as adults, and more likely to report feeling like an adult.
  • Volunteering may also help protect young people from the negative effects of living in more socially disadvantaged communities, with fewer facilities and fewer friends and family locally. In these areas, young people tend to have worse mental health, less trust in society and are less confident of themselves as adults. However, young people living in these areas who volunteer do not share the same negative outcomes.
  • The relationship between political engagement and life outcomes is more complicated. Greater political action is linked with poorer mental health, but this may be because people who are less happy with the state of society are more politically engaged.

Policy Implications:  what could help more young people get involved?

  • Civic, Social, and Political Education at senior cycle could foster greater participation later in life, especially among disadvantaged groups. Enhancing school engagement and educational attainment would also be beneficial.
  • Early involvement in out-of-school activities channels young people toward greater engagement, but fees can be a barrier. Subsidised activities could help overcome this obstacle.
  • Improving the provision of local youth facilities (such as youth clubs and sports/leisure facilities) and regular, affordable public transport, could further foster opportunities to volunteer.
  • Community development initiatives should involve young people at every stage, which would both benefit them and their communities.

Launching the report, Minister Joe O’Brien T.D., Minister for State for Community Development, Integration and Charities said:

“This report clearly shows the value at a societal and individual level of young people’s volunteering and civic and political engagement and it was my pleasure to attend and meet the brilliant delegates at the third Sitting of Ireland’s National Rural Youth Assembly in Dublin Castle last month. The Assembly gathered approximately 65 delegates, aged between 12-25 years, to discuss the challenges and opportunities for young people participating in civic society in rural Ireland. This Government wants to continue to involve young people in decision making to plan for a future, their future, that allows them to remain in, or return to, their local communities to live, study, socialise, and work. The Government is committed to promoting Comhairle na nÓg; a permanent structure representing young voices in decision-making in Ireland.”

James Laurence, lead author of the report, said:

“Civic and political engagement not only benefits society, through people helping others, but can also benefit those young people taking part. Volunteering in particular can improve young adults’ mental wellbeing as well as protect them from socially disadvantaged environments. Closing the gaps in civic and political engagement between different groups of young people, such as those from more advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, can therefore reap dividends, both for young people and society as a whole."

Emer Smyth, co-author of the report, said:

“Transition Year emerges as having a strong effect on becoming involved in volunteering and political activities. However, not all young people take the programme. Therefore, there are lessons to be learned for the rest of senior cycle from the success of Transition Year in promoting civic and political engagement.