Peace Corps (Volunteers) Turn 51: Baby Boomers & the Changing Face of Volunteering Abroad

Baby boomers are still asking ‘What can I do for my country (and my world)?’ and the answer is, probably a lot more than they could when they were twenty.

Peace Corps and Bonnie Lee Black have something in common: age. Peace Corps celebrated its 51st anniversary in March this year; Bonnie was 51 when she closed her catering business and joined them as a volunteer in the thickly rain forested interior of Gabon, Central Africa. That was back in 1996. Bonnie was then on the leading edge of a surprising shift in volunteering, not only within Peace Corps, but in many volunteer sending organizations as Baby Boomers eschew outdated stereotypes about aging and throw themselves into post-retirement full-time volunteer service.

‘You may have youth on your side, but I’ve got skills and experience on mine.’

Even though overall rates of volunteering continue to fall for the Baby Boomers as they age (a normal part of the volunteer life-cycle that I’ve blogged about before), there is an absolute increase in older Americans volunteering abroad. A whole cottage industry has sprung up to cater to short-term senior volunteers abroad. (see here and here and here!) Higher end voluntourism operators owe a good part of their growth and success to these aging adventurer volunteers. (Of course, there are also growing domestic volunteer programs like Senior Corps aimed at connecting older volunteers to worthy causes.) In many ways this is not surprising; Baby Boomers have more money, time, and health to travel abroad then previous aging generations; they are mindful about giving back and leaving a legacy; and they are educated and armed with a range of applicable skills that many younger volunteers simply don’t have. And this last point may be the most important one in terms of changing what volunteer service can look like.

Peace Corps volunteers 60 and older have more than doubled in the past three years. Just this month an 81-year old man completed a 27-month service assignment in Ukraine! Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams says that all Americans can make an impact in a developing country at any stage in life. “Older Americans bring tangible skills, professional development and life experience to their Peace Corps position in a community overseas. I encourage Americans to consider serving with the Peace Corps at any age.” Deputy Communications Director Kristina Edmunson was interviewed by AP reporter Melissa Kossler Dutton for a piece published by ABC News titled ‘Not Your Grandma’s Peace Corps? Well, It Can Be‘. She told Melissa, “It’s a natural fit. Older Americans who serve with Peace Corps come with a wealth of life experiences, creativity and professional development that can help make an instant impact in a community overseas.”

At 57, Tamara England-Zelenski (also profiled in the ABC News article) may be better fit for Peace Corps than she was when she first considered volunteering in her early 20s. “I had considered Peace Corps when I was in my early 20s, but I felt that I had no specific skills to offer, other than speaking French. I figured they wanted specialists and I was a generality, so I never applied. And I’m still a generalist, but one with a lifetime of experience in different areas and businesses.”

This is mostly good news for aid elitists who rant against sending young unskilled volunteers out into the world armed only with good intentions and a spirit of adventure. As Bonnie says, “I hope and pray other people don’t let themselves be sidelined. Don’t think it’s over at 50-something or 60-something. The older we are, the more we have to give back.”

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Categories: Volunteering


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5 Comments on “Peace Corps (Volunteers) Turn 51: Baby Boomers & the Changing Face of Volunteering Abroad”

  1. June 7, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    I forgot to share this link to Peace Corps 50+ Volunteers site, a special portal into Peace Corps for older volunteers.

  2. June 7, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    Great article Aaron! We talk a lot about the great work that older Volunteers do in the Peace Corps during our Peace Corps 101 class. : )

  3. June 8, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Very relevant article Aaron. Living (as a boomer) in SW Florida I can attest to the fact that there are a lot of seniors in this area with more than adequate resources to volunteer and bring significant experience to international volunteerism. Most are also interested in travel so that is an added incentive. I think this is a very significant, untapped resource. There needs to be some marketing of opportunities and needs in South Florida. I think there would be an amazing, effective response.

  4. June 11, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    This is an exciting trend, and a common hunger and conversation that emerges amongst older mentors at the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship’s conferences and fundraisers. Perhaps it’s never too late to develop what the Krista Foundation develops in service volunteers throughout their 20’s: “a lifelong ethic of service and global citizenship.”

  5. June 18, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    As a self-proclaimed aid elitist, this is, of course, great news. Send me an old codger with experience over a greenhorn any day. However, it should be noted that “experience” can be narrow-minded as well, and that aid professionals are not just professionals that work overseas. Even senior Peace Corp volunteers will need to check their perceptions at the boarding gate.

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