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A Sense of Civic Responsibility: Ferris Bueller's Day On

by Heather Peeler

Twenty-five years ago, Ferris Bueller skipped school to spend a day of frivolous fun with his friends. He had little regard for authority, responsibility or the rules. We all wanted to be Ferris – slightly cynical, charmingly irreverent, and clever. Ferris – and the movie he starred in – defined a generation – my generation, Generation X.

Fast forward to today. Where might Ferris be if he skipped a day in the office? Try an abandoned inner-city Chicago lot. Ferris might be taking a ‘Day On' by volunteering. He could be leading a team of colleagues on a KaBOOM! build. Gen X, once a generation of disengaged slackers, is now the generation with the highest volunteer rates.

According to research from the Corporation for National and Community and Service, people born between 1965 and 1981 gave 2.3 billion hours of service in 2010 – an increase of almost 110 million hours since 2009. Twenty-nine percent of Gen Xers volunteered, surpassing Baby Boomers long recognized for their civic engagement and Millennials who are often celebrated for their social entrepreneurship.

In many respects this data is not a surprise to me. At a recent college reunion, as my friends dissected their busy lives, one persistent theme was volunteering and service. Coaching a daughter's soccer team, serving on the board of a local food pantry, leading the PTA, organizing fundraising drives for breast cancer research – everyone was engaged in making a difference in ways, large and small.

Has my generation discovered a new-found sense of civic responsibility?

This data makes for a good hook – but there's more to it than attitudes and characteristics of a particular generation. Volunteer rates are reflective of a lifecycle that's a bit counter intuitive. They increase when we are the busiest raising families and advancing in careers. Why?

Research suggests that social ties are a key factor. We volunteer when we are asked. The more people we know – colleagues at work, parents at school, neighbors down the block – the more likely we are to be asked and to be inspired to get involved.

So if you see a bunch of 30-somethings dancing and singing “Danke Schoen,” chances are they are celebrating time spent building a new house with Habitat for Humanity, mentoring a young person at risk of dropping out of high school, providing pro-bono legal aid for a returning veteran, or any of the hundreds of ways Generation X is taking day on.

Find out where your generation or state ranks by learning more about the Volunteering in America report.

Heather Peeler is the Chief Strategy Officer for the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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