International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler

Civil Society and the Elderly

  • Kai BrauerEmail author
  • Jürgen Kocka
Living reference work entry


Increasing life expectancy and low birth rates globally contribute to the elderly constituting an ever growing share of the population. Though the category of “the elderly” is generally determined by age, there is no common definition. In this entry, we focus on social groups that normally find themselves in the postoccupational phase. The elderly surely make their greatest contribution to society within the family by, for example, looking after their relatives. This entry, however, deals with the civic engagement of the elderly outside their families: activities in more formal organizations, networks, and initiatives of civil society. Such engagement tends to have a positive impact on the elderly participants and on civil society more broadly. The entry also reflects on civil society initiatives that attract the elderly as members, offer them services, and promote their interests. The civil engagement of people 65+ is growing worldwide, but their participation rates vary greatly between nations. Promotion of civic engagement of the elderly becomes increasingly a political objective in most countries. Civic engagement itself has taken on the status of a common resource for individuals in planning their later life.


Due to an increasing life expectancy and low birth rates the share of the elderly of the population is growing in many countries, and this process will accelerate. It is foreseen that the world population over 65 will more than double between 2020 and 2050 – from 728 to 1548 million (UN 2019, Table A.31, p. 241). In Europe, the share of those aged 60 or older grew from 12% in 1950 to 20% in 2000 and is estimated to be around 35% in 2050 (StBA 2006, 2019). The equivalent values for the United States are 12% (1950) to 16% (2000) and 27% in 2050, while in Germany they are 14.6% (1950) to 28.0% (2018) and 40% in 2060. The share of the elderly who are (no longer) part of the labor force has been increasing in many countries in the past decades, especially where social security systems make possible the transition to retirement without impoverishment. As an average of all OECD countries, the labor force participation rate of 55–64-year-olds was only 50.3% in 2000 – with big differences in rates between countries (OECD 2019a). This number increased every year, reaching 63.0% in 2017. Only 9% of the 65+ age group in Europe were gainfully employed in 2000 (nearly 15% in 2017), whereas in the United States the labor force participation rate of people over 65 increased in the same time from 13% to over 19% (OECD 2019b).

The following questions with regard to civil society arise from the increase in life expectancy. The lengthened lifespan after the employment phase and the increased share of the elderly lead us to ask: To what extent can the elderly contribute to strengthening and activating civil society through their civic engagement? To what extent can civic engagement contribute to societal inclusion and to the enrichment of the life of the elderly after they exit the labor force? Can support from the civil society help in dealing with the increasing need of care for the elderly? To what extent can civic engagement, in this respect, supplement the family- and kin-based networks as well as professional assistance? To what extent do civic groups and activities contribute to protecting the basic rights of the elderly and struggle against or prevent their discrimination? One has to look at the extent, the preconditions, and the consequences of civil engagement for the elderly. This relates to the debates about “productive aging” (Butler and Gleason 1985), about services that the elderly perform for the community, and about the inclusion and well-being of the elderly – in each case through civic engagement.

The category of “the elderly” or “the aged” is generally determined by age, but there is no common or general definition. Thus, Baltes referred to 60 as the beginning of the “third age” and 80 as the beginning of the “fourth age” (Baltes and Smith 1999). In the literature dealing with the labor market, persons older than 50 or 55 already belong to the group of “older employees.” Studies of old age generally begin with this group, and sometimes even with younger groups. In most countries, the beginning of retirement is determined to be 65. For this reason, this figure is frequently used as the beginning of the phase of old age, as in Burgess (1960). Surveys show the popular view of the beginning of old age as between 70 and 75 (Kohli and Künemund 2002, p. 98). As the age-related decline in performance, engagement, and health varies enormously, definitions that are oriented on biological age have to be viewed critically (see Neugarten 1982). In view of the increasing differences between the elderly, Bytheway (2005) sharply criticized the use of upwardly open age group definitions because they suggest a homogeneity between 50-, 60-, 70-, 80-, or 100-year-olds which obviously does not exist. In this entry, less thought is given regarding age groups beyond a certain numerical age and more regarding social groups that normally find themselves in the postoccupational phase. This qualitative criterion, based on the trichotomy of the life course (Kohli 2007; Künemund and Vogel 2018), is still a useful heuristic tool for analyses in volunteering and other forms of civic engagement.

The following definition is found in an amendment to the Older Americans Act of 2005: “The term ‘civic engagement’ means an individual or collective action designed to address a public concern or an unmet human, educational, health care, environmental, or public safety need.” This refers to “voluntary work,” work not for wages or for individual profit (Anheier and Salamon 1999). It distinguishes between formally organized civic engagement (community organizations, parties, unions) and informal civic engagement (neighborhood, peer group, family). Though the elderly surely make their greatest contribution to society within the family by looking after their grandchildren and supporting their adult children or taking care of their spouses or other relatives, this discussion will deal with the civic engagement of the elderly outside their families: activities in civil organizations, networks, and initiatives of civil society. Inclusion in democratic structures, education of equal policies, and decision-making is still the goal of volunteering from and for elders (Ajrouch et al. 2016).

Key Issues

Civic Engagement of the Elderly

It was assumed for a long time that old age was naturally accompanied by a retirement from gainful occupations and public life. Formulated by Cumming and Henry (1961) as disengagement theory, elder persons separate from productive social roles “in order to relinquish these roles to younger members of society. As the process continues, each new group moves up and replaces another, which, according to disengagement theory, benefits society and all of its members.” This implies that, in addition to gainful employment, the elderly also relinquish civic engagement to the younger generations and that this is in accord with societal succession arrangements. This appears to hold true to a certain extent, as most studies show a decline in engagement with increasing age. For example, the intergenerational volunteering survey of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) shows that volunteering increases with age up to about 65 and decreases thereafter (Harootyan and Vorek 1994). Volunteering tends to decline most clearly among the very old, typically for those beyond the age of 75.

One argument against the simple assumption of a voluntary withdrawal of the elderly in the sense of the disengagement theory is the observable strict correlation between withdrawal and poorer health, because this holds true for all age groups (Erlinghagen and Hank 2006). Health status has a powerful effect on volunteering. This explains part of the observable withdrawal of the elderly from volunteering.

It is also noticeable that the engagement of the elderly is highly variable and has increased noticeably in some countries in the past decades. Clear increases in the engagement of persons older than 65 were documented in the AARP survey in some American states starting in the 1960s and going on into the 1990s (Chambre 1993). On the basis of German surveys it has been shown that volunteering rates increased between 1999 and 2014 from 28.4% to 38.5% among those aged 55 and older (Simonson et al. 2017; Vogel et al. 2017). Only 35% of all Germans over 64 report that they are never involved in voluntary work (Vogel and Gordo 2019).

We also have to take into account the fact that the amount of the engagement of the elderly is highly variable. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016), the active elderly reported a median of 2 h of engagement weekly in 2015. But 9% reported 10 or more hours per week. Furthermore, multiple activity is widespread. Elders are often involved in several formal and informal activities. In the Commonwealth Productive Aging Study (Caro and Bass 1995), four areas were surveyed: gainful employment, voluntary engagement, informal long-term home care, and looking after grandchildren. Three quarters of the people between 65 and 74 were active in at least one of these areas, a third of them in two or more areas.

It is obvious that regional differences are important. On one hand, for urban and rural areas, we can see no measurable difference with data from the German Aging Survey (Scherger et al. 2004). On the other hand, cross-national differences have been clearly shown to be very high (Haski-Leventhal 2009; Komp et al. 2013). According to the definition selected in the SHARE study, a strong North–South divide was revealed. The engagement of people between 65 and 75 is highest in the Netherlands – over 25% – followed by the Scandinavian countries. In Spain and Greece, on the other hand, less than 4% of the people older than 50 do volunteer work (Haski-Leventhal 2009). Whether this is due to institutional reasons or whether one must look for explanations in the area of culture or modernization theory has to be investigated further. In contrast to the widespread “crowding out” assumptions, which proceed from the assumption of a decline in civic engagement in view of large welfare state expenditures for the elderly, the reported evidence seems rather to indicate the opposite (“crowding in”). Voluntary engagement of and for elders is greater in European countries with a well-developed state pension system and a high level of social services than in countries that are poorer in these respects (Künemund and Rein 1999).

The newest research has not confirmed the disengagement theory. The elderly do not necessarily withdraw from voluntary work after going into retirement. On the contrary, they sometimes even participate to an increasing extent in clubs, neighborhood associations, and civic groups. With more exact measurement, a slight increase is seen in the rate of engagement directly after the transition to retirement that only declines with increasing age. This supports approaches that see in civic engagement a compensation (Baltes and Baltes 1990) for the loss of activities at the workplace. The research also shows, though, that persons who were civically engaged in earlier years exhibit a higher probability of also being active in retirement than those who had no experience with civic engagement in younger years (Smith 2004; Erlinghagen and Hank 2006). Productive aging has to be learned and prepared for in early stages of the life course. Especially volunteering behavior is relatively stable over the life course, but the heterogeneity and selection into volunteerism seems to be more important (Lancee and Radl 2014).

Effects of Engagement on the Elderly

The data of the European Social Survey show that traditional volunteer work in associations and organizations, namely in sports clubs, social clubs, churches, and religious groups, as well as in welfare organizations, constitutes the most common form of civic engagement for the elderly. The engagement of the elderly in neighborhood and citizens’ initiatives as well as in senior citizens’ cooperatives and self-help initiatives appears still to be relatively marginal. However, out of all age groups, people over 60 express the strongest political–public interest. In political parties, which suffer from a lack of younger members in many countries, people between 65 and 75 are the most willing to accept an honorary office.

Engagement in clubs, initiatives, and self-organized institutions offers the chance for meaningful activity, for retaining and developing competencies, for self-affirmation, social recognition, and inclusion – precisely for the life phase after full gainful employment. Additionally contacts with people in other age groups could arise from this. In contrast to the many forms of gainful employment with their hard discipline and heteronomy, taking over civic activities is usually possible in smaller, variable amounts – depending on the capabilities and preferences of the elderly persons (Kocka 2007, pp. 359–360).

Much speaks for the fact that civic engagement and the well-being of the elderly correlate. But it is often difficult to determine whether one is dealing with selection effects or whether the well-being of the elderly was improved through engagement. Analysis of the data from SHARE for Europe has shown that voluntarily performed services go together with an increase in well-being particularly when these services have a high degree of societal recognition (Wahrendorf et al. 2006). We see again big differences in this effect between countries (Haski-Leventhal 2009). In Northern Europe, with high volunteering rates, the relation between volunteering and well-being is strong, but is also strong in Italy with low volunteering rates (7%). Perhaps surprisingly, the correlation between volunteering and well-being was lower in the Netherlands, where the volunteering rates were the highest (Haski-Leventhal 2009).

Nevertheless, in strong contrast to the widespread stereotype of elders as a biologically determined passive group, the differences between the countries show the opposite: the matured people become more and more active. In the most north European countries, the participation rate between 60 and 70 years of age is now over 60% – and is still growing. Most studies have pointed out the positive effects of civic engagement on the process of adaptation to retirement (Dorfman and Kolarik 2005; Wang et al. 2011). Most important, studies show positive effects of civic engagement for elderly individuals, especially on health (Dewey and Prince 2005; Fried et al. 2004; Ichida et al. 2013; Molina et al. 2018). Any negative effects for elders because of too much of engagement have not yet been discovered. On the contrary, it has been detected that negative age stereotypes, like ideas that elders are incapable, too slow or too ineffective for volunteering, increase the risk of mental illness and physical vulnerability (Staudinger 2015).

Governmental Promotion of Engagement by the Elderly

Policy can make it easier to use the potential of the elderly’s engagement. The United States, where the Older Americans Act (OAA) has provided the administrative support for the engagement of the elderly since the 1960s, is considered as forerunner in this respect. A starting point for this was the Foster Grandparent Program (FGP) that was launched 1965 as a pilot program designed to engage people over 60 with some income limitations in community service. The Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973 (amended in 1999) improved the legal and financial basis for such programs like the Senior Companion Program (SCP). It intended to expand the role of low-income older volunteers who provide person-to-person services. Senior Corps, which expressly pursues an intergenerational approach, links the FGP and the SCP. It seeks to use the specific capabilities and life situations of the different generations, so, for example, the support by the younger elderly in the care of the oldest groups. Along with two comparable programs (AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America), Senior Corps finally became part of the Corporation for National and Community Service (NCS), thus bringing the wide range of domestic community service programs under the umbrella of one central organization. Volunteers in the Senior Corps receive some financial support for living expenses. This fact was criticized, because of the perforation of the border between non-paid volunteering and low-wage jobs (Martinson and Minkler 2006; Moody 2001). This criticism could be answered by the argument that engagement has positive effects for those who practice it voluntarily and in a self-determined way, and that poorer people cannot be included in the system of civil society without financial support, which is exactly what the programs of the NCS aim at. As is well documented, socioeconomic status has a strong influence on the likelihood of engagement (Tang 2008). Voluntary organizations are therefore advised to facilitate older adults from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in taking volunteer roles.

In most European countries, such promotion is limited to general tax deductions for financial contributions to nonprofit organizations, for the establishment of foundations and similar engagement. There are various programs for the elderly in some European countries. The EU also promotes voluntary engagement in the course of its efforts to integrate the elderly more strongly into the labor market. The specific promotion of engagement beyond the pension age is just beginning. Financially securing subsistence in old age is one of the central governmental responsibilities in many European countries, especially in Scandinavia and Germany. The result of this is a generally high level of integration of the elderly in the social welfare system, especially through universal health insurance (Leisering and Leibfried 1999). Nevertheless, several programs have been developed to promote the civic engagement of the elderly, including projects in Germany such as EFI (Erfahrungswissen für Initiativen) that train the elderly as volunteers in civil society organizations.

Bottom Up: The Nonprofit Organizations of the Elders

In an international comparison, a connection between the extent of engagement of the elderly and the existence of organizations that represent the interests of the elderly can be identified. As Erlinghagen and Hank (2006) have shown the civic engagement of the elderly is comparatively low in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Organizations for the elderly are also hardly known or insignificant there. On the other hand, the lobbies for policies benefitting the elderly are influential in northern Europe, especially in Great Britain. Age UK, resulting from a 2009 merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged, provides an umbrella for hundreds of initiatives in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and had net income of some £56 million in 2018/2019 from donations and nonprofit activities (Age UK 2018/2019). In addition to research and service provision, it attempts to influence laws to protect the rights of the elderly. In Europe, Great Britain with Age UK and other initiatives is considered the forerunner.

Even the British organizations cannot match the attainments of the American lobbies for the elderly, though. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) with 38 million members (as of 2018) is the largest independent (nonprofit, nonpartisan) organization in the United States. It is not the only representation of the elderly in the United States. It competes with the Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA), on the progressive side, and the American Seniors Association, on the conservative side. In the struggle for members and influence, these organizations attain a high level of activity. The organizations are capable of influencing political decisions. This goes together with the fact that there is no other country with a stricter safeguarding of the basic rights of the elderly than the United States. Laws against age discrimination in gainful employment, for example, the Anti-Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) from the 1970s and the formidable Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), offer effective protection and participation regulations for older job seekers, which also have an effect on the area of civic institutions. Through the establishment of the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) and the Administration on Aging (AoA) within the US Department of Health and Human Services, effective governmental institutions were created which did not supersede the work of the many civic institutions, but apparently motivated it. In addition to the mass organizations already mentioned, there are also a multitude of nongovernment, nonprofit organizations that perform practical work for the elderly and are active in different task areas. Here it is important to mention the American Society on Aging (ASA), the Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE), and the National Council on Aging (NCOA). In addition to these organizations that work for the elderly and against ageism in general, there are also organizations that represent specific groups of the elderly. The most well-known are surely the OWL as “The Voice of Midlife and Older Women,” the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging (NCBA), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and Justice in Aging (formerly the National Senior Citizens Law Center), a nonprofit group of attorneys, who legally represent the elderly poor.

In the USA, the impulses to protect the rights and the standing of the elderly emerged originally from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The vast governmental funding for research into old age – and thus enlightenment – has surely also had a supportive effect. The National Institute on Aging alone has a yearly budget of US$3 billion (2019) at its disposal. Its founding director Robert N. Butler is considered as the originator of the concept of “productive aging” and the concept of “ageism” (Butler 1969; Brauer 2008). His work strengthened the basis of the struggle against age discrimination, which a large number of organizations are now devoted to. Until his last day in 2010, Butler acted as the president of one of the most internationally important nonprofit organization devoted to fighting ageism, the International Longevity Center (ILC) in New York, which is now member of a global alliance of ILCs in 17 countries.

Future Directions

The civic engagement of the elderly has grown considerably in the past decades. Much indicates that it will grow further. It has gained importance in the course of demographic change. On the one hand, the increasing number of active elderly and those who could be activated in the future represents a large resource for strengthening civil society. The civic engagement of the elderly can also contribute to meeting the ever-increasing need to supplement professional care institutions and family care givers in regard to care for the frail elderly. On the other hand, various types and amounts of civic engagement after the phase of gainful employment – after the exit from the labor force – offer the elderly opportunities for meaningful activity, for social recognition, for intergenerational contacts, for life enrichment. The promotion of civic engagement of the elderly is being seen as a political objective, and civic engagement itself as an alternative resource for individuals in planning later life (Schweda et al. 2019). High social welfare standards and governmental activities for the elderly tend to support their civic engagement. Societies in which the civic engagement of the elderly is supported by political means, in which the elderly find organizations that protect them as a group from discrimination, and in which they can represent their group interests will probably see increasing rates of engagement in the future. This strengthens civil society, and at the same time the productivity, well-being, and health of the elders.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hochschule NeubrandenburgUniversity of Applied SciencesNeubrandenburgGermany
  2. 2.Social Science Research CenterBerlinGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany