Giving back changes with generations


In what ways do we identify the place we live? When does that place become something we call “home?” Are we called to give back? If so, how?

These are questions with which I’ve often wrestled as I went about the work I did as state senator.  They are the same question with which I now wrestle in my new role at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. When does a place become a home? How do we pay it forward by giving back?

I’ve learned by experience that different generations answer these questions differently and that “giving back” can have a wide range of meaning, depending on your age. That’s natural, I suppose. Each generation is shaped by national and world events and is also shaped — sometimes as a reaction against — the values of the generation that came before them.

The “greatest generation” has always been very civic-minded. They came of age shaped by the Great Depression, World War II and atomic bomb.  They tend to respect authority, value formal rules and believe in institutions. They are regular voters and founding members of nonprofits and civic organizations. We all know, however, that few from that generation are still with us.

The generational wave now quickly entering retirement are the baby boomers. And they approach the question of community differently. Though active and often lifelong members of the organizations their parents founded, they were also shaped by civil rights, space travel, cultural revolution and the Cold War. As a result, they tend to value personal gratification, growth and individual success were far more that the greatest generation. Pursuit of a comfortable, more affluent, lifestyle has often meant volunteering time and other resources versus financial donations.

Generation X are those folks in their 30s and 40s today. That’s my peer group. We were shaped by the end of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a world made dramatically smaller by technology and an extended period of relative global peace. Gen Xers are not joiners. Growing up as latchkey kids in families where both parents worked, they developed self-reliance, independence and an entrepreneurial spirit. Their lack of joining has been a problem for many of the organizations their grandparents started and parents sustained. But this has not meant a lack of giving back. Their entrepreneurial spirit and use of technology has led to civic and social action of entirely new dimensions.

“The Next Generation of American Giving,” a 2010 study, dug a little deeper into these generational differences. They found the greatest generation and the baby boomers made significant differences through financial contributions. Money matters to these older generations, but declines sharply in importance with those who are younger. Where 45 percent of boomers say their financial contribution is key, only 36 percent of Gen Xers think making financial contributions to an organization is critical. Instead, Gen Xers believe that volunteering and their personal involvement is more impactful.

Reasons for giving also change by generation. Having survived World War II, the greatest generation tended to place civic pride and strength at the top of the list. Living through the peace movement and civil rights, the baby boomers were more driven by addressing the basic social and equality needs of the community. Having seen extended periods of economic prosperity and stability, Gen Xers tend to think more holistically and have a strong desire to make the community as an entity better.

I am proud to be a Duluthian. One of the many reasons is our high level of financial giving to worthwhile organizations and high level of volunteering for community causes. It’s a part of who we are and how we think of ourselves. This giving back often looks differently based on how old we are. Perhaps it also changes over time as our level of time, energy and personal finances also change. It is critical that we continue our proud civic traditions and that we are intentional about growing our next generation of contributors.