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Active ageingVoluntary work by older people in Europe$

Andrea Principi, Per H. Jensen, and Giovanni Lamura

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781447307204

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447307204.001.0001

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Older Volunteers in Italy: An Underestimated Phenomenon?

Older Volunteers in Italy: An Underestimated Phenomenon?

(p.47) THREE Older Volunteers in Italy: An Underestimated Phenomenon?
Active ageing

Andrea Principi

Carlos Chiatti

Giovanni Lamura

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter informs on the main opportunities and restrictions for older volunteers in Italy, through an examination across different levels (i.e. micro, meso, macro and structural). For example, the involvement, the preferences and the motivations of older volunteers have been scrutinised by considering interconnections with voluntary organisations, the welfare mix, the institutional level and cultural attitudes. Among other results, it has been argued that the dimension of older volunteering may be considerably under-estimated in Italy, due to a cultural propensity not to perceive self-expressive volunteer activities, as real “volunteering”. As a consequence of this, self-expressive volunteering among older people is not captured by the available data. The chapter also identifies main challenges on how to improve the match between supplies of older candidates with the demand of voluntary organisations in the future, in Italy.

Keywords:   older volunteers, Italy, voluntary organisations, volunteer activities, volunteering, welfare mix


Despite recent changes, the familistic Mediterranean Italian welfare state (Esping-Andersen, 1996; Ferrara, 1996) is still largely anchored in the male breadwinner/female carer family model (Lewis, 1992; Pfau-Effinger, 2005). According to this model and its cultural context, women are expected to have the main responsibility for carrying out homemaking and caring tasks, often on a full-time basis, and particularly in the Central-Southern regions. This explains why female labour force participation rates –as for older workers –are still very low in most Italian regions (although a trend towards higher participation rates can be observed in recent years), whereas the state's role is mainly that of providing not so much in-kind services, but rather care allowances (Bettio and Plantenga, 2004), financial support that is frequently used by households to privately hire migrant care workers (Di Rosa et al, 2012).

The limited extent of state-run or funded care services helps explain why voluntary work in Italy is concentrated in this field. On the whole, however, the voluntary sector in Italy appears to be underdeveloped when compared to other European countries, especially those in the North. This may be explained by the fact that, on the one hand, volunteering in Italy is not felt as a ‘social norm’ (Ascoli and Cnaan, 1997), while on the other, actual volunteering-like activities, particularly in the culture and recreation fields, may not be perceived as such in the eyes of many Italians. Indeed, the dominant profile of volunteering in Italy has often been described as mainly ‘altruistic’ and ‘service-oriented’ (ISTAT, 2006a; Fondazione Roma Terzo Settore, 2010). However, the amount of ‘self-expressive’ volunteering may be underestimated by some of the existing surveys, due to sample biases and cultural social norms, as this form of volunteering is, to some (p.48) extent, not perceived as such by the common Italian mentality. As a consequence, only about 10 per cent of the population describes itself as being actively engaged in voluntary activities (ISTAT, 2011), which are performed in about 220,000 non-profit institutions, mainly registered as associations, 81 per cent of whose workforce is made of volunteers (ISTAT, 2001a). The total contribution produced by voluntary work has been estimated to reach 0.7 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product), while the whole non-profit sector adds up to over 4 per cent of GDP (CNEL-ISTAT, 2011).

In light of this situation, the Italian voluntary sector does not seem to fit any of the models envisaged by Salamon and Anheier (1998) in their social origin theory (see Chapter Two, this volume). Indeed, even if for some structural aspects it looks rather similar to the social democratic pattern, the existence of many substantial differences from this model suggests that the Italian model might represent an original form of volunteering, with a focus on social services. Moreover, in contrast to what was found by Salamon and Anheier, government social welfare spending is rather low in Italy compared to that of most Northern and Western European countries (Eurispes, 2006).

The emphasis of the Italian voluntary sector on social services seems to be in accordance with the interests and preferences of older Italians, who prefer to carry out intragenerational activities (Frisanco, 2006). However, they are also often engaged in culture and recreation activities, to an extent that is probably underestimated by existing research, as already observed. In 2010, about 9 per cent of people aged 65-74, and 4 per cent of those aged 75 or older, were found to participate in voluntary activities.

This chapter aims to describe the main opportunities and restrictions for volunteering by older people in Italy. After a brief introduction to the traditional features, current situation and legal framework characterising volunteering, the next section provides a quantitative overview of the organisations, sectors and volunteers, including older volunteers. The third section addresses the main individual, organisational and institutional opportunities existing in Italy for volunteering in older age, and also considers the impact of paid employment and family care of older people. The fourth section deals with future perspectives, before concluding with some reflections on what can be learned from the Italian situation.

(p.49) The Italian Tradition of Voluntary Action

Historically, in Italy ‘volunteering’ is meant as an activity that is ‘carried out for free’, but it is not particularly supported by social norms, as there is no social expectation that volunteering should be part of an average citizen's everyday life (Ascoli and Cnaan, 1997). Nevertheless, voluntary work in Italy has deep historical roots. It mushroomed in the 18th century, when voluntary organisations and charities were promoted by the Catholic Church and Socialist movements, mainly in the field of social work, healthcare, alms housing and education (Borzaga and Santuari, 2000). During the 19th century and up to the 1970s, the voluntary sector was scaled down, in parallel to the birth of the modern welfare state, which assumed some of the responsibilities previously provided to the community by voluntary organisations (Borzaga, 2004). Between the 1970s and 1990s, as a consequence of the financial constraints affecting the Italian welfare state after the first oil crisis, there was a slow re-emergence of the voluntary sector. In this period, while the state remained responsible for public services, the voluntary sector experienced progressive growth (Barbetta and Maggio, 2002; Borzaga, 2004), and became increasingly recognised as a crucial actor in public policy, which culminated with the establishment of a permanent platform called the Third Sector Forum. After the 1990s, however, there was a renewed phase of retrenchment at the institutional level, coinciding with the centre-right government coming to power. In this period, the role of the third sector was significantly downgraded, and protocols and documents produced in the earlier period were neglected (Ranci et al, 2009). In 1999 public subsidies to non-profit organisations were 36 per cent of total earnings of the sector, while only 13 per cent of organisations were ‘mainly’ publicly funded (ISTAT, 2001a). Public funding represents the main source of financial support only for 10 per cent of organisations in the culture, sports and recreation sector (compared to 40 per cent of those in health care, 26 per cent in social care and 26 per cent in economic development and social cohesion). This shows that, albeit they represent the great majority (almost 50 per cent) of all organisations relying mainly on public funding, public support is not central for volunteer activity in this sector. On the other hand, in 2003, 50 per cent of voluntary organisations stated that they received some kind of public funds (ISTAT, 2006a). Recently, however, as will be discussed later in this chapter, there has been a renewed institutional interest around volunteering, particularly the volunteering of older people. While in the 1980s governmental policies only considered older people as recipients of health and social services, (p.50) starting from the 1990s attention shifted, albeit slowly, to the ‘free time’ of older people who are increasingly considered as a valuable resource for society (Frisanco, 2006).

The Legal Framework

Italian legislation concerning the voluntary sector (and the third sector in general) is highly fragmented (Ranci et al, 2009). Several laws mention volunteers and volunteering; however, the most relevant national laws that focus mainly on the regulation of organisations, their activities, infrastructure and access to public funds are as follows:

  • Law 266-1991: the law on volunteering which established the ‘Register of voluntary organisations’. A basic principle stated by this law is that voluntary activities must be provided spontaneously and for free for reasons of solidarity (that is, mainly to people outside, not belonging to, the organisation itself), even if costs sustained by volunteers may be reimbursed. Paid staff can only be employed to a very limited extent by voluntary organisations. Registers of voluntary organisations are established at a regional level, that is, the regions manage enrolment. To be enrolled it is necessary to register the founding charter and the statute at the tax office, where a tax code is given to the organisation. The main benefits of being registered are that organisations can access public funds, tax benefits and stipulate agreements with public bodies. Furthermore, at the local level the law established service centres for voluntary work (CSV), to provide technical and professional assistance to voluntary organisations.

  • Law 383-2000: regarding social promotion associations. The main objective of this law is to define the legal framework for those organisations carrying out, without profit, ‘socially useful activities’ in favour of both their members and non-members, although the law excludes organisations aiming at defending people's economic interests (for example, political parties, unions, employers' organisations, private clubs, and so on). These organisations mainly promote social rights, solidarity, equal opportunities, the arts, sport and research, so this law fits well mainly with the self-expressive type of volunteering. It envisages the possibility –in exceptional cases –of hiring paid staff (even among members of the organisation) to carry out their activities. The registration process is similar to the one described for voluntary organisations, but it takes place (p.51) in a different ‘list’. Registered associations can access public funds, stipulate agreements with public bodies and are able to benefit from other economic advantages.

In recent years, particularly at the local level, some normative measures specifically aimed at encouraging the participation of older people in volunteering have been employed, even if the positive effect of these measures has not yet been captured in available data. The national Law 133/2008 introduced (until 2014) the remarkable possibility of public employees close to retirement age being able to retire earlier from their work and to receive 70 per cent of their wages, under the condition that they documented their regular volunteering. However, this was abrogated by Law 214/2011. On the one hand, it has not been very successful in terms of application, since most entitled people preferred to carry on working, and more importantly, it was the victim of one of the decisions taken by the Monti government to reduce public expenditure within the so-called ‘Save Italy’ manoeuvre. Apart from this national policy, which is no longer available, some regional initiatives focusing on the social participation of older people have also recently been enacted. For example, the regional Veneto Law 9/2010 extended Voluntary Service (that is, servizio civile, a specific Italian system that allows people aged 18-28 to work in different non-profit organisations, receiving a payment of around €400 per month from the state) to older people, in order to promote them as a resource for the community. Similarly, in 2004 the Piedmont region established Voluntary Service for people over 65 years of age (regional Law 1/2004). A similar example comes from the Emilia Romagna region, where Law 20/2003 established that Voluntary Service could also be performed by adults and older people. In 2009, the Liguria region enacted a law on the ‘promotion and valorisation of active ageing’ (Law 48/2009), with the aim of planning and implementing, within a broad regional triennial social plan, activities carried out by people over 60 that are gratifying, socially dignified and useful to older people themselves and to the community, in the fields of education, work, volunteering, culture, tourism, free time and so on.

The Dimension of Volunteer Work

Participation in voluntary activities by the Italian population has been slightly but steadily increasing in the last decade (see Table 3.1), a period in which the share of the population stating that it was engaged in formal volunteering grew from 7.5 per cent in 1999 to (p.52) 10 per cent in 2010. As stressed in more depth later, there has been a remarkable increase in formal volunteering, particularly in the older age groups (55 year old and over).

Voluntary Organisations

The increasingly positive attitude to volunteering reported by Italians is reflected in the fact that voluntary organisations are experiencing an expansion in numbers. During the period 1995-2003, the number of organisations registered according to Law 266/1991 increased from 8,343 to 21,021, 40.6 per cent of them being formed after 1995 (ISTAT, 2000a, 2006a). Nevertheless, the most detailed picture regarding organisations in the Italian voluntary sector is provided by the ISTAT (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, National Institute for Statistics) survey of voluntary organisations from 2003, which is rather dated, however, and refers more to service-oriented organisations as specified by Law 266/91 (ISTAT, 2006a). In 1999 ISTAT investigated for the first time the heterogeneous mix of organisations constituting the non-profit sector as a whole, finding that there was a total of 221,412 active organisations in this sector, of which, in terms of legal form, the most relevant group (202,061) was represented by associations (ISTAT, 2011a -preliminary data from a second survey in 2011 suggesting that the total number of active organisations has

Table 3.1: Population volunteering in an organisation in the last 12 months, 1999-2010 (%)

Age group





∆% (1999-2010)





























































Total population






Notes: People answering ‘Yes’ to the question: ‘In the last 12 months, have you worked for free in voluntary associations or groups?’

Rates per 100 people of the same age group.

Source: Authors' elaboration on ISTAT (2000b, 2005, 2008, 2011)

(p.53) grown to over 300,000; ISTAT, 2013). This underlines a clear bias in the survey that is exclusively based on ‘voluntary organisations’, as much information in the culture and recreation sector, including that regarding volunteers, was not surveyed, since most of the activities performed in it were not legally considered as volunteering.

Regarding the size of the organisations in terms of numbers of volunteers, the majority enrol less than 20 volunteers (53 per cent), while large organisations (with more than 60 volunteers) represent 13 per cent of the total. The distribution of voluntary organisations across the country is not uniform, with more in the Northern and Central regions (ISTAT, 2006a).

According to ISTAT (2001a), most Italian non-profit organisations operate in the culture and recreation sector (63.4 per cent), the second area by total number of organisations being social care (8.7 per cent). When only taking into consideration recognised voluntary organisations (ISTAT, 2006a), most are reported to be active in health and social services (65 per cent).

Paid staff represent a very limited component of human resources (HR) in voluntary organisations. Only 12 per cent of all voluntary organisations can count on the presence of employees, the latter being reported in particular by large organisations and by those operating in the health and social care sectors. In 2003 employees reached a total of 11,900. Another HR category, which, as mentioned earlier, can be considered a hybrid between employees and volunteers, is that represented by young volunteers doing Voluntary Service, who, in the same year were 9,389 (ISTAT, 2006a). When we consider non-profit organisations as a whole, in 1999 there were 531,926 employees and 27,788 young volunteers in Voluntary Service (ISTAT, 2001a).

Volunteers by Sector, Gender and Age

Surveys have revealed that there were 825,955 unpaid volunteers in voluntary organisations and 3,221,185 working in 80 per cent of non-profit organisations as a whole (ISTAT, 2001a, 2006a). Recent preliminary data show that the latter number grew by 2011 to more than 4,700,000 (ISTAT, 2013).

Table 3.2 shows that the health and social services sectors are the main areas in which volunteers operate in Italy, and they are hosting a growing number of volunteers. A different scenario is described by the more comprehensive census of all non-profit organisations that shows that most volunteers are in the culture and recreation sector (52 per cent –recent data showing that their share is further increasing; ISTAT, (p.54) 2013), with 15 per cent and 10 per cent in the health and social care services, respectively.

The increase in volunteering is also confirmed by a survey on the ‘daily life activities’ of individuals, which reported a growth from 7.5 to 10 per cent between 1999 and 2010 in the share of the population 14 years and older who declared having spent time in non-paid activities for a voluntary organisation (see Table 3.1 above). This 10 per cent may be estimated to be the equivalent of about 5,000,000 individuals. This survey shows (see Table 3.3) that the gender composition of volunteers is rather similar, even if men are slightly more represented (10.5 per cent against 9.5 per cent of women). A stronger male representation is reported in the census of non-profit organisations, which indicates that 65 per cent of all volunteers are men (ISTAT, 2001a). According to this source, both men and women are more present in the culture and recreation sector, social services and health, but in different proportions: while men volunteer more frequently in the former sector (55 per cent), women are more concentrated in social services (55 per cent) and health (60 per cent). A different picture is provided by data collected on a sample of voluntary organisations by Fondazione Roma Terzo Settore (2010), which found that in 2008, 52 per cent of volunteers were women and 48 per cent were men.

Considering the total population, people in 2010 volunteered more in the age group 55-64, whereas in 2007 the most active age groups were represented by people aged 18-24 and 45-59 (ISTAT, 2008, 2011). Overall, volunteering patterns are changing, especially among

Table 3.2: Number of volunteers by main sector of activity,1995-2003

Voluntary organisations

All third sector

Area of activity





Social services










Culture and recreation





Civil protection















Education and research





Human rights





Other sectors










(a) Included in social services;

(b) Included in culture and recreation.

Source: ISTAT (2001a, 2006a)


Table 3.3: Activity in voluntary organisations at least once a year, 2010

Age group
















































Note: Rates per 100 people of the same gender and age group.

Source: ISTAT (2011)

men. Whereas in the past the volunteering peak was reached for both genders in younger age ranges, in 2010 engagement in voluntary activities among men increased up to the age of 64 (ISTAT, 2005, 2008, 2011).

When we analyse participation in voluntary organisations by age group and activity sector (see Table 3.4), volunteers aged 55 and over constitute about 50 per cent of all those collaborating in the social services sector, about one third of those volunteering in the health sector and more than one third of those engaged in the culture and recreation sector.

Figure 3.1 shows that in 2008-09 volunteers aged 65 and over spent on average the same time as adult and younger people in voluntary activities (1.35 hours, 1.41 and 1.28 hours per day, respectively; ISTAT, 2012). So the Italian case seems to differ somewhat from what is generally reported in the literature, that is, that older volunteers devote more time than younger ones to voluntary activities (see, for example, Warburton and Cordingley, 2004).

The literature suggests that a higher educational level is correlated with higher participation in voluntary activities. The ISTAT survey (see Figure 3.2) confirms this positive correlation in all age groups, both for men and women (the latter having a higher education than men in both younger and older age groups). As well as being more highly educated, volunteers are also more highly qualified compared to non-volunteers (ISTAT, 2011). (p.56)

Table 3.4: Number of volunteers by main sector of activity and age group, 2003

Age group

Main sector of activity

Up to 29






% 55+

Social services
















Culture and recreation








Civil protection
























Education and research








Human rights








Other sectors
















Source: ISTAT (2003)

Figure 3.1: Average time spent in voluntary activities in an average weekly day, by age group, 2008-09 (hours and minutes per day)

Older Volunteers in Italy: An Underestimated Phenomenon?

Source: Authors' elaboration on ISTAT (2012)

(p.57) In light of the information mentioned earlier, we can conclude that the ‘prototypical’ Italian volunteer is male, aged 55-64, operates in the culture and recreation sector, is highly educated and qualified, and dedicates about 1.30 hours per day to voluntary activities. The female prototype is slightly different, being younger (aged 45-59), and while operating mostly in the culture and recreation sector, does so to a lesser extent than men, is more represented in the social services and health sectors, is more educated in both younger and older age groups, dedicates more time than her male counterpart in middle age.

Participation of Older Volunteers

While volunteer activity rates by age and sector are not available for the non-profit sector as a whole, according to the survey on voluntary organisations, older volunteers are mostly present in social services, as shown in Table 3.4. In general, male participation starts decreasing after the age of 64. Older males dedicate weekly about 10 minutes more than older females to volunteering and are less educated than middle-aged male volunteers. The typical older female volunteer is likely to give up after the age of 59, is more educated than older male volunteers, but less so than younger volunteers.

Older Volunteers in Italy: An Underestimated Phenomenon?

Figure 3.2: Activity in voluntary organisations among males and females, by age group and educational level, 2010 (%)

Notes: International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED): 1 = primary; 2 = lower secondary; 3 = upper secondary; 5 = tertiary.

Source: Authors' elaboration on ISTAT (2011)

(p.58) Older volunteers seem to be mainly motivated by altruistic reasons and ideals of solidarity, whereas younger volunteers are more involved in different sectors (including the environment, sports and education), and are more likely to be driven by self-fulfilment reasons and by goals of social utility and human growth (Fondazione Roma Terzo Settore, 2010). This may be explained by the greater older volunteers' desire to maintain a sense of self and to deepen intimacy in social contacts through altruistic activities (that is, emotional gratification) against younger volunteers' greater preferences for pursuing knowledge through volunteering (Carstensen et al, 1999; Fung et al, 2001).

Looking at the trends in volunteering in older age, the proportion of volunteers aged 65 years and over in organisations grew between 1997 and 2003, from 8.9 to 13.5 per cent. In the same period, the share of mature volunteers (aged 55-64) also grew, from 18.3 to 23.3 per cent (ISTAT, 2000a, 2006a). On the other hand, Table 3.1 shows remarkable increases in the activity in voluntary organisations of all of the older age groups 65-74 (+126.8 per cent), 75+ (+90.5 per cent), 60-64 (+89.7 per cent) and 55-59 (+60.5 per cent), compared to the younger groups.

As already observed (see p 47), volunteering among older people in Italy may be a largely underestimated phenomenon, since part of its self-expressive component is probably not well captured by surveys. Indeed, Frisanco (2006) estimated that the number of older people carrying out unpaid social activities in these organisations in 2001 was almost twice as high as those who had officially been considered volunteers. According to Frisanco, the reason for this is that older Italians tend to prefer to organise themselves in autonomous intragenerational social and recreational centres. So an additional ‘unofficial’ profile of older volunteer emerges from these reflections, which is that of someone who prefers self-expressive cultural and recreational activities among peers.

Regarding the organisational dimension, and partly linked to what has just been mentioned, there are different kinds of organisations in Italy in which older people volunteer exclusively: (trade) unions of older people, voluntary and social associations to promote social events (including those linked to the unions), universities of the third age, and so on. There are also organisations for volunteers of all ages but with a prevalence of older volunteers, particularly in the social services and health sectors. Nevertheless, using data from two non-representative surveys on voluntary organisations, Frisanco (2006) found that between 1997 and 2001, the share of voluntary organisations composed totally or mainly of volunteers aged 65 or over decreased from 6.5 to 5.5 per (p.59) cent of all voluntary organisations. In contrast, in investigating the universe of registered voluntary organisations, ISTAT underlined that in 2003 these kinds of organisations were much more numerous, and constituted about one third of all voluntary organisations (De Sario et al, 2010).

Frisanco (2006) identified the main characteristics of organisations composed of older volunteers as follows: longstanding history; female overrepresentation; provision of (light) care, support and socialisation services to a higher extent (more so than in other age-profiled organisations); and very limited involvement in emergency assistance, transportation of sick people and environmental protection. They represent intragenerational organisations, and the main beneficiaries of these organisations are older people themselves and poor people, as they are often strongly linked to the Catholic Church. Furthermore, they are characterised by a certain degree of isolation, as they are less linked to other kinds of institutions or organisations. In addition, they can count on lower levels of funding compared to other organisations, are less engaged in recruiting new volunteers and the volunteers of these organisations also receive less training.

Older People's Participation in Voluntary Organisations: Opportunities and Restrictions

Despite the recent increase in the number of older Italians participating in voluntary activities, recent societal and demographic changes as well as some unfavourable transformations affecting voluntary organisations may have hampered current volunteer opportunities for older people. This section analyses the current opportunities and restrictions for volunteering in older age in Italy from three different perspectives: individual, organisational and political/institutional, also taking into consideration connections with other roles such as those of (paid) worker and (unpaid) family carer.

Opportunities and Restrictions for Volunteering for Older People

Looking at the individual level, it is well known that a high level of education, good health and high socio-economic status represent factors that facilitate volunteering in later life (Principi et al, 2012b), and that older people generally have fewer resources in these areas compared to younger people. Indeed, as Caltabiano (2006) observed, despite the general volunteers' ideal of ‘activism for solidarity’, Italian older citizens do not fit so well with this profile of volunteer, as they (p.60) are described mainly as passive people who are distant from social and political engagement because of their particular social conditions (for example, their low educational level and retired occupational status), rather than due to a real individual choice. In this context, the strongest intentions to volunteer are expressed by older adults who view volunteering as a useful, interesting and pleasant activity (Grano et al, 2008). Nevertheless, they seldom take the decision to volunteer by themselves. Indeed, the social participation of older Italians seems to increasingly depend on their positive answer to a request, for example, by a friend, or by an organisational representative, to get involved. They tend to answer this request positively, mainly for reasons of togetherness, to maintain social relationships and to count more in society as an older person (Mastropietro, 2009). This stronger need for social relations in older volunteers compared to younger people was also found by Capanna et al (2002), who explored the main motivations of Italian volunteers. However, motivation in older volunteers is a multidimensional phenomenon going beyond just social reasons, as underlined, for example, by Principi et al (2012c), who found that important drivers for older Italian volunteers are altruistic motivations and the desire to protect their ego from negative feelings through volunteering.

With respect to the organisational level, there is a substantial lack of Italian studies on what is offered to older volunteers in terms of measures and initiatives. In addition to what was discussed earlier (see p 59), Frisanco (2006) underlines that voluntary organisations composed mainly of older people are likely to be linked mainly to the local area (for example, the parish or municipality), and are less likely to be involved in carrying out research or other kinds of studies. Also, they have less funds and do less fundraising in general, have less developed communication and promotion strategies and are less active in networking. Thus, there seem to be several negative organisational aspects linked to volunteering in older age. Focusing on the positive aspects, organisations composed mainly of older volunteers seem to offer themselves mainly for recognition and intragenerational support in the mutualistic and recreational context (Frisanco, 2006).

At the political/institutional level, until recently there has been no specific overarching national policy addressing active ageing or even volunteering among older age groups, as reflected by the few and disconnected initiatives that are available. This does not seem purely an age-related problem, since in Italy the support of the third sector in general has never been an overarching public policy goal (Ranci et al, 2009). However, as described earlier, the institutional support of the (p.61) social participation of older people has recently increased. A further driving force in this has surely been the European designation of 2012 as the Year of Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity, which led the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies to promote specific initiatives aimed at increasing the social participation of older people and initiatives for intergenerational solidarity. For example, through ministerial directives, the funding of experimental projects on active ageing and intergenerational solidarity has been considered a priority, and both voluntary organisations and social promotion associations have been invited to present project proposals. Specific funds have also been envisaged for projects on this issue by municipalities, in partnership with third sector organisations and research bodies, to further promote active ageing at the local level (Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri, 2012). It will be interesting to see the extent to which the latter activities can realistically be implemented in the near future, given the state spending review currently underway in a climate characterised by budget cuts, which already seem to have caused some limitations on volunteer opportunities for older people (see p 51).

Older People between Employment and Volunteering

There seems to be no evidence that in Italy working for the labour market may hamper participation in voluntary activities in older age groups. On the contrary, since both volunteer and paid work activities are experiencing an increase, as reported by several studies (see, for example, Haski-Leventhal, 2009), working for the labour market seems to have a phasing-in effect on volunteering by increasing personal social relations and opportunities for social engagement.

Even in a context of low rates compared to most European countries, the employment rate of older workers, both men and women, is increasing in Italy mainly due to a gradual rise in the statutory retirement age in the latest pension reforms. From January 2012 the retirement age limit in Italy has been increased to 66 years for both men and women employed in the public sector, and to 62 years for women employed in the private sector. The same level (that is, 66 years) for workers of all sectors and genders will be reached by 2018. Between 2004 and 2011 the employment rate of people aged 55-64 increased from 42.2 to 48.4 per cent for men and from 19.6 to 28.1 per cent for women. In 2011, the employment rate of the population over 65 was 5.6 per cent for men and 1.3 per cent for women (Eurostat, 2012).

(p.62) Despite governmental efforts to increase the retirement age in Italy, only 48 per cent of 50 to 65-years-olds declared that they “would enjoy having a paid job even if they did not need the money”. This is a rather low value compared with most European countries (ISSP, 1997). However, apart from the Italian orientation to work, working in older age due to economic need may become an issue in the near future in Italy given the expected reduction of pension income as an effect of the pension reform. There is already some evidence that in the last few years people have increased their participation in the labour market after retirement, especially beyond the age of 70 (Principi et al, 2012a).

What may be the consequences of this changing scenario on volunteering by older Italians? According to SHARE data (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe), in 2004 Italian older adults in paid employment participated slightly less in voluntary activities (10.6 per cent) than retirees and other non-working older people (11.4 per cent), and relatively low rates of engagement were associated with being in paid work (Erlinghagen and Hank, 2006). The subsequent wave of SHARE data suggested a different interpretation: while the rate of volunteering by employed people stayed the same (that is, 10.6 per cent), the participation in volunteering of non-employed older people decreased to 6.6 per cent (Haski-Leventhal, 2009). This may suggest that retirement crowds out volunteering, which seems to be confirmed by the ISTAT data that show (see Table 3.3) that participation rates of both men and women decrease after they retire (in 2009 the effective average age was 61.1 years for men and 58.5 for women; see OECD, 2011). This positive relation may be further improved by planning and implementing programmes linking companies and voluntary organisations, for example, through employee volunteer programmes, as a useful way to respond to the need of promoting active ageing and thus facilitating engagement in the period between work and retirement (Mastropietro, 2009). These are not widespread in Italy, however.

Older People between Family Care and Volunteering

The Italian informal care system has been changing in the last few years. Most of the in-house caring responsibilities have shifted to migrant care workers, and disabled older people are much more likely to live alone than in the past. Family carers, particularly women, continue to provide informal care, but increasingly in terms of the ‘organisation of care’ rather than care in itself. Keeping this in mind, it is possible (p.63) to observe that older people's engagement in both volunteering and informal family care to non-cohabitant people is growing in Italy, so it can be assumed that a growth in the family help/care activities of older people does not necessarily mean a decline in the participation of older people in voluntary activities, even if a gender effect may be present.

Considering elder care, in Italy, as in most Mediterranean and Eastern European countries, a significant percentage of people (50 per cent) think that the best option for an old parent living alone in need of regular help is to live with their children, or one of the children should regularly visit the older person's home to adequately care for them (Eurobarometer, 2007). Thus in Italy care is considered a family matter –women are often culturally expected to assume the role of housewives and informal full-time carers (Anttonen and Sipilä, 1996), whereas the state traditionally provides care allowances rather than in-kind social services (Bettio and Plantenga, 2004). This is reflected in the use of long-term care services for people aged 65 years and over: about 9 per cent of older people receive a care allowance, less than 5 per cent some kind of home care and 3 per cent residential care (Gori and Lamura, 2009). So even if elder care in Italy is mainly informal, it should be considered that a cash-for-care scheme (the care allowance, that is, indennità di accompagnamento, which totalled about €470 monthly in 2009) is present, and the dependent person can freely use this benefit. However, this scheme is available not only to older people but also to disabled people of all ages, even if most of those who receive it are older people

Nonetheless, family ties are weakening (Naldini, 2002) due to factors such as a falling fertility rate, an increase in conjugal instability, decreasing intergenerational cohabitation and the greater employment rate of women in the labour market. Family solidarity has not disappeared, but has, rather, undergone a process of adaptation (Tomassini and Lamura, 2009). For example, the care allowance is likely to be used to employ migrant care workers to look after older people living alone (Lamura et al, 2010; Di Rosa et al, 2012). For this reason, today more than in the past, Italians aged 55 years and over are engaged, on the one hand, in providing help to non-cohabitant younger (children and grandchildren), while on the other, to non-cohabitant older (parents) family members (ISTAT, 2001b, 2006b). Can this trend of increasing but changing engagement in family care have consequences on participation in voluntary activities by older people? As already observed, despite these trends, a growth in volunteering in older age at aggregate level has been observed, so (p.64) at first sight this may suggest a positive relation between the two activities. However, Italian voluntary organisations generally perceive family caregiving as a significant barrier to older people volunteering (Principi et al, 2010) and, given the female care family model that is widespread in the country, women may be especially penalised in this game. As a consequence it may be no coincidence that women are less involved in volunteering than men in adult and older age groups (see Table 3.3).

Improving the match between Supply of Older Candidates with the demand of Voluntary Organisations: Future Perspectives

Increasing the participation rate of older European people in voluntary activities represents a key challenge for the future, and Italy is no exception in this, as demonstrated by national and local policy efforts on the matter. The voluntary sector represents a field in which older Italians can find new meaning and experiences that may compensate for the loss of engagement following retirement from the labour market, and hence they are no longer considered solely as recipients of services and care (Frisanco, 2006). If a higher commitment among older Italians is to be pursued, future actions to improve the match between supply of older candidates and the demands of civil society organisations must be undertaken, both by organisations themselves and by institutions. The literature does not tell us much on organisational efforts undertaken to improve this match in Italy. Frisanco (2006) underlined that older volunteers are often excluded by voluntary organisations with more resources, and some Italian studies have indicated what actions should be undertaken by organisations. Grano et al (2008), for example, underlined that to attract older volunteers, voluntary organisations should arrange policy programmes providing salient and accessible information on the importance of volunteering, and highlight the advantages of volunteering, thus encouraging older people to identify their own reasons for volunteering. Furthermore, they should create age-targeted recruitment programmes, provide more training opportunities and consider the motivation behind volunteering.

As for the institutional level, despite the stronger interest in promoting active ageing shown recently that is likely to determine a further increase in volunteering by older people in the near future, Mirabile (2009) comments that more focused and effective thinking and actions by policy makers at various levels are needed as ageing (p.65) is still often addressed mainly in terms of prevention of health risk factors and retention in the labour market, completely neglecting the social engagement of older people. De Sario (2009), on the other hand, highlights that more specialised tools and conditions are needed, such as, for example, targeted volunteer programmes.


In Italy about 10 per cent of the overall population volunteers, with participation rates peaking for those aged 45-64 years (about 12-14 per cent), and decreasing in older age groups. However, a sharp increase in voluntary participation is observed in the age bracket 65-74, which means that older people are increasingly involved in community life. Official sources depict older volunteers as those mainly involved in the social services and healthcare sectors, but their participation in self-expressive activities may be underestimated. Despite the increase in participation at the individual level, voluntary organisations do not seem to be ready to fully exploit older volunteers' potential. There are several organisations where older volunteers might actually contribute, but they seem to be those characterised by a lower availability of resources.

At the institutional level, efforts to involve an increased number of older citizens in voluntary activities have recently mushroomed, and are likely to help voluntary organisations remove the main barriers for older volunteers in the future, for example, by providing older volunteers with more opportunities for training and qualifications to carry out activities. At the moment these are only intentions, and it will be interesting to observe if they will turn into concrete facts. The expectedly longer working life deriving from the recent pension reforms does not seem to represent a threat, but rather an incentive to volunteering in older age. It is no coincidence that older men, while working more and longer, are more involved in volunteering than older women. On the other hand, informal family care of older relatives or grandchildren may be seen as a barrier to volunteering, especially for older women. Thus, even with the perspective of an overall positive scenario for the future volunteering of older Italians in the global framework, more effective thinking on how to overcome this dilemma is needed at both the institutional and organisational level, for example, through more gender-specific targeted programmes.

Speaking in terms of social origins theory, which relies mainly on the non-profit scale and the social welfare spending to categorise third sector regimes, Salamon and Anheir (1998) included Italy in the social (p.66) democratic model (see Chapter Two, this volume). Nevertheless, we found evidence that Italy does not fit very well in this model. Indeed, Italy is characterised by a rather low social welfare spending, and a low scale of volunteering, since volunteering in Italy (as probably in other Mediterranean countries) may not really be perceived by (older) individuals as a social norm compared to other countries. It can therefore be concluded that more specific attention should be paid to this Mediterranean third sector pattern as a relevant variation of the other, more well-known, models.


The authors would like to thank Renato Frisanco for his useful comments.


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