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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 France: recognising their social utility in a less and less corporatist welfare state

Older volunteers in France: recognising their social utility in a less and less corporatist welfare state

(p.149) SEVEN Older volunteers in France: recognising their social utility in a less and less corporatist welfare state
Active ageing

Marielle Poussou-Plesse

Elena Mascova

Mélissa Petit

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the volunteering of older people in France in a context of an evolving welfare state and non profit sector. It explains why public policies aiming at promoting the active ageing have not led more baby-boomers to become involved in volunteer work. Poor public recognition of social utility of senior volunteering and its possible causes are discussed in this chapter in a historical perspective linking employment and retirement policies developments. It concludes by pointing out alternative ways to address the gap between public policies focusing on a productive utility of volunteering, organisational challenges that non profits are facing, and the real nature of volunteers' commitment to non-profits.

Keywords:   France, non-profit sector, social utility, active ageing, corporatist welfare state, organisational challenges


In international comparisons, the French welfare state is usually classified as continental and ‘corporatist’: generous welfare benefits are funded by contributions related to occupational status and managed jointly by representatives of employer and trade union organisations (Esping-Andersen, 1990). However, the welfare state has become more heterogeneous given changes over the past 30 years; it has now taken on characteristics of other welfare ‘models’ depending on the type of risk covered (Barbier and Théret, 2009). The French welfare state, as in other European countries, is seeking to redefine itself as a social investment state, where the prevention of social risks is as important, if not more important, than compensation for them. The characteristics of the French welfare state and its evolution have created certain relations between public authorities and the non-profit sector.

The non-profit sector in France is characterised by a high level of social expenditure financed by public authorities, and the relatively large size of this sector, with a historical core of big associations, both financed and overseen by the public administration and a Bismarckian type social security system (CPCA, 2008). The Johns Hopkins programme for comparing non-profit sectors in several countries thus qualified the relations of French public authorities with voluntary organisations as ‘corporatist’ (Salamon and Anheier, 1998). However, nowadays this model in France reproduces the main features of the liberal model as far as cooperation between non-profit organisations and public authorities has evolved from institutional oversight towards (p.150) a contractual partnership based on a shared responsibility for social investment (Archambault, 2002, 2012).

The heterogeneous nature of the French ‘third sector’ –which comprises cooperatives, mutual aid societies and foundations as well as the non-profit organisations (or associations) at the centre of this chapter –can largely be put down to its regulation based on the principle of social utility. This principle underlies the standards for cooperation between non-profit organisations and public authorities. Recognising the social utility of volunteering is an official priority of associative public policy but, as argued later, the situation is different regarding senior volunteers.

With its 14 million volunteers giving their time to more than a million active associations (with more than 60,000 associations created each year since 2003), the French non-profit sector is relatively dynamic. Employment in associations has grown steadily (equivalent to 5 per cent of all employment), notably in health, education and social work, partly as a result of the decentralisation of public policy starting in the 1980s and of the modernising reforms of public administration. It is also interesting to link the labour market situation to the evolution of the non-profit sector: in the context of mass unemployment with restricted access to jobs for young and old, voluntary organisations have often been seen as offering significant employment opportunities. They have therefore been targeted by public policies through subsidised jobs and civic engagement service (after a symbolic allowance) for the young. The high employment rate of French women, in what has been called a ‘dual breadwinner/ external care’ model, has been another factor in the growth of wage earning in non-profit organisations.

Although the associations with employees account for more than 80 per cent of the total budget of all associations (€70 billion, 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product, GDP), they make up only 15 per cent of the country's 1.3 million associations and represent less than 25 per cent of the volunteer work done in France (Tchernonog, 2007). In other words, most volunteer work is performed in associations that do not have any employees. Associations whose members practice an activity (sports, recreation and culture) represent 60 per cent of all associations and nearly half the time devoted to volunteer work. Volunteering in France is both self-centred and altruistic.

Over the past decades, the percentage of volunteers in the population over the age of 15 has been stable, hovering at around 25 per cent. The participation rate of 60-to 70-year-olds in volunteer work equals the national average, thus placing France in the middle ranks (p.151) of the European Union (EU) in this group as in the younger group (Erlinghagen and Hank, 2006). Apparently, public policies aiming at promoting active ageing have not led more baby-boomers to become involved in volunteer work.

This chapter describes the principal barriers to, and opportunities for, volunteer work by seniors in France. After a brief introduction to the traditional features, current situation and legal framework characterising volunteering, the second section offers a statistical panorama of senior volunteering from national data. The third section draws attention to the individual, organisational and institutional factors underlying senior volunteering. The fourth section discusses the possible prospects to improve the match between the ‘demand’ from associations for older volunteers and the ‘supply’ of senior applicants. The conclusion explains why these prospects amount, in the main, to words and not deeds.

The French tradition of voluntary action

Voluntary associations in their modern form received recognition under an Act passed by French Parliament in 1901 which still provides the general legal framework for French associations, but ‘volunteer work’ as an idea with a similar meaning to the phrase in English emerged much later, along with the strong increase in number of associations during the 1970s. Before this period volunteer work had little distinction from charitable activities and political militantism. It can therefore be seen as the outcome, on the one hand, of a secularisation of 19th-century paternalism and charities, and, on the other, of a de-politicisation of worker mutual aid societies (Demoustier, 2002).

The strong development of voluntary organisations in the second half of the 20th century in France could be considered as characteristic of the historic evolution of the social state (Hély, 2009), in which three main periods can be distinguished. The first, the post-Second World War period of growth, when the social, centralised and protective state was built, was characterised by the strong development of voluntary associations in the health and social care sector. The regulation of the associative sector by the public authority could be seen as directly supervised by the administrations.

The development of volunteering has also been based on a sociological trend in activism that sees voluntary organisations as a laboratory for participatory democracy. Following the events of May 1968, the social demands of the middle class for a (p.152) better quality of community life favoured the development of volunteering (Demoustier, 2002). Volunteering was encouraged as a concrete citizenship exercise and even as a way of integrating the underprivileged through the associations that carry out social work or run educational programmes: this blurred the distinction between beneficiaries and volunteers. The cleavage has become a rift between, on the one hand, the volunteer managerial work of staff members (especially in the more professionalised organisations) and, on the other, a spontaneous volunteer work oriented towards democratic participation. However, the boom of associations in 1970-80 also benefited self-expressive voluntarism with the creation of senior citizens' clubs and universities.

During the second period in the 1980s, along with decentralisation and the consequent cuts in public funding, the legal and financial relations between voluntary associations and public authorities moved from a role of supervision to that of partnership, in which associations were encouraged to contract with local governments directly at the regional, departmental and municipal level. The urban policy, with its neighbourhood-based associations aiming at recreating social ties and combating social exclusion locally, represents a symbolic area of this new public action.

The third mode of regulation arises during the 1990s in the form of a partnership between for-profit firms and non-profit associations. Driven by the social responsibility movement, big corporations has subsidised associations and has developed volunteer programs for employees encouraging their commitment to educational, social and cultural associations.

These evolutions underlie major changes in the public funding system and as a consequence, a growing professionalisation of voluntary organisations. The incremental process of the professionalisation of associations has led to the division of labour inside associations: once certain tasks became ‘professional’, others were deemed ‘voluntary’. Volunteers started to be seen as a source of ‘extra’ labour that, although necessary, was still suspected of being amateurish by the swelling ranks of permanent staff members comprising voluntary heads of associations and wage earners.

Accounting for half the income of associations in France, public funding now comes mainly from communes, departments and regions (28 per cent of the total budget of associations), more than twice the amount paid by central government. If central government finances actions in the social, health, educational and cultural field, regions favour education and culture while departments subsidise (p.153) more social actions. Funding has become more selective, based on projects and performance evaluation, and more dependent on local priorities (Archambault, 2010, 2012). Thus, current debates focus on the recognition of social utility produced by associations: the statistical measure of their productive contribution and recognition of the various statuses of workers within the voluntary sector (CNIS, 2010).

The Legal Framework

Legislation concerning the voluntary sector in France is highly complicated. From within the broad, supple framework established in 1901, public authorities have extended recognition to several types of associations as a function of their general interest and field of action (Morange, 2008). Nevertheless, the most relevant laws –as far as recognition of social utility of associations and volunteers is concerned –are the following:

  • Tax rule 170-1998: measuring the social utility of associations so as to justify the funds served to them has become the issue shaping state policy towards associations. From a strictly legal viewpoint, social utility has not been defined save by the tax rule in 1998 that exonerated certain associations from taxes. This text defines a series of steps and criteria (services rendered, the public targeted, the price of services, advertisement, etc) for attributing case by case the qualification of ‘social utility’ to associations. This tax rule also allowed associations to pay volunteers in positions of responsibility.1 The Socialist government adopted these measures in response to the diagnosis of a leadership crisis in the non-profit sector.

  • Law 73-2002 on social modernisation: this allows people to obtain diplomas based on accreditation of previous work experience, and recognises the skills acquired not only during occupational careers, but also through volunteer work in associations. More and more universities are providing volunteering students with European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits to their academic curricula.

  • Law 240-2010 on civic service: this law creates specific civic engagement service contracts allowing for 16-to 25-year-olds to have a 6-to 12-month assignment with social security coverage and an allowance from the government (€422 net per month in 2012). In 2011, 15,000 civic service contracts were signed, and the objective for 2012 was 25,000. Given all this, and that there are no specific rules to support the volunteering of older people, (p.154) it can be said that government subsidies to associations have been youth-friendly.

A national conference on the non-profit sector held in 2006 underlined the importance of better recognising and accompanying volunteering as a priority of associative life in France. However, how this is to be recognised is still under question. The recent creation of a specific civic service contract for younger volunteers questions the very meaning of volunteering as a voluntary, disinterested activity done for free (bénévolat, in French). The definition of an official status and advantages for volunteers is still at stake.

The Dimension of Volunteer Work

The rate of ‘formal’ volunteering among the French over 15 years old increased significantly, from about 15 per cent in the mid-1980s to 25 per cent 10 years later. Estimates since then agree that it has remained steady at this level. The rate of volunteering among people at least 50 years old stands at the national average and, like the figure for those over 15, has been stable. However, major differences exist between 50 to 69-year-olds, whose volunteering rate is above average (around 30 per cent) and people 70 years old or older, whose rate is lower, at 17 per cent. Specialists in this field have drawn attention to the discrepancy between the membership rates in associations –the senior rate is the highest –and the degree of volunteering among seniors, given the free time available to them (Prouteau and Wolff, 2007).

Voluntary Organisations

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of associations rose from less than a million to approximately 1.3 million, a 20 per cent increase if the focus is on ‘active’ organisations. The structural split, between associations with and without employees, runs through Tchernonog's (2007) typology of French associations:

  • Associations with missions that are linked to interventions by public authorities represent 15 per cent of all associations, and 83 per cent of total budgets. The large majority of association employees fall in this group. Among these organisations, which often manage considerable budgets and benefit from special recognition by public (p.155) authorities, are healthcare and social work establishments as well as cultural and sports organisations.

  • Associations that are often advocacy groups, with strongly activist and humanitarian objectives (29 per cent of all associations, 5 per cent of total budgets). Most are all-volunteer organisations.

  • Associations with members who practice an activity (sports, culture, leisure): 56 per cent of all associations, 12 per cent of total budgets. These associations account for half of all volunteers: organising activities for members implies a lot of voluntary work.

This typology must be related to public funding: it barely flows into very small associations, but accounts for more than 60 per cent of income in associations with employees (especially in social work and health). The geographical distribution of associations is not uniform. Historically, they have been strongest in southern and northern France. The third sector is more solidly established there for reasons having to do with politics, history, the influence of the Catholic Church and the rural environment (ONESS, 2009).

Associations employ 1,800,000 wage earners, whose work has been estimated to be equivalent to the volunteer work done by non-wage earners in associations. The average association has around 15 volunteers, four on their staff roll.

Volunteers by sector, gender and age

The last update of statistics on volunteering in 2010 paints a picture in three concentric circles: 23 per cent of the French are involved if we just take into account volunteers in associations (strictly speaking), 28 per cent if we include other organisations (religious organisations, labour unions, etc) and 36 per cent if we also bring into this picture ‘informal volunteering’, that is, services for people other than family members performed outside any organisational setting (Recherches & Solidarités, 2011).

During the first decade of the new century, the increase in the number of volunteers in associations –more than 14 million people at present –roughly equals the increase in the French population: 10 per cent. It is far from the percentage increase in the number of active associations during this same period: 20 per cent. Talk about a ‘volunteering crisis’, often by association staff members, can mainly be understood as an increasing demand for volunteers. Older associations find it difficult to attract new volunteers; the latter surge, sometimes in fits and starts, towards new associations and causes, and volunteer (p.156) in more than one organisation (Recherches & Solidarités, 2011). The only reliable, detailed description of volunteering is, unfortunately, not very recent: the Associative Life Survey conducted by the French National Institute of Statistics (INSEE) in 2002. It can, however, be partly updated from other sources. In 2002, the principal fields for volunteering were cultural and recreational activities (32.6 per cent of volunteers), sports (26.2 per cent) and advocacy groups (18.5 percent).

Volunteering is higher among men than women: 35 versus 28 per cent of people over the age of 18, according to the most recent figures (Archambault and Tchernonog, 2012). Men tend to volunteer in associations related to sports or their jobs, whereas women tend towards social work, healthcare and education. Proportionately more women volunteer in small associations. A gender-based distribution of tasks to volunteers can be detected. Women are in a majority in tasks that call for lending a sympathetic ear or providing support or care to individuals. However, they hold only 31 per cent of positions as president of an association (Tchernonog, 2007).

Volunteering is definitely correlated, except in sports clubs and religious organisations, to a higher occupational status, household income and education. The volunteering rate rises from 16 per cent for people without a secondary school diploma to 44 per cent for those with two or more years of higher education (Archambault and Tchernonog, 2012). Another positive correlation is with residence in a rural commune or small town. As much can be said about the family environment: people whose parents or spouse have been volunteers more often become volunteer themselves.

What do the statistics tell about the relation between volunteering and age? It varies by age group. According to the 2002 survey, the volunteering rate varied little –between 25 and 29 per cent –for those aged 15-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59 and 60-69; but there was a drop to 17 per cent after the age of 70. Refining these figures with other variables, a bell-shaped age profile emerges with a peak toward the age of 45. Analysis comparing people over and under 60 brings to light differences between the two groups regarding the rate of volunteering and its orientation by sector (see Table 7.1).

This difference turns out to be noticeable only in the case of occasional volunteer activities, but to be much less consequential for regular volunteer work.

Were the profile of the French volunteer to be sketched, it would be of a man in his forties or fifties with a higher education and a higher income, living as part of a couple in a small town, and devoting (p.157)

Table 7.1: Volunteering rate by age group, volunteering frequency and sector, 2002

Age group














Regular volunteering






Occasional volunteering






Volunteering sector







Culture and recreation












Social and health services
























Source: Survey Associative Life Survey, INSEE, 2002 (Prouteau and Wolff, 2007)

2.5 hours of work per week to an association related to sports, recreation or his work. His counterpart is a woman, who volunteers more in organisations in social work, religion or education, but is less active, and her volunteering is more occasional.

Participation of Older Volunteers

Attention in France has been drawn to the difference between the membership rate of seniors in associations and their degree of involvement. People over 60 are ‘joiners’, 51.3 per cent, as compared with 42.2 per cent of the rest of the population over the age of 15. For them, however, joining an association less often entails active participation: in the group of under-60s four members from ten volunteer, while it is three per ten members over 60. However, the group over 60 is not homogeneous, as Table 7.2 clearly shows. The rate of volunteering for 60 to 70year-olds is not lower than for younger age groups, and the sharp drop in volunteering occurs after 70.

Why is the rate of volunteering by young retirees, who have more time available and the highest membership rate, not significantly higher than that of people in their fifties? Although the next section answers this question in more detail, a combination of two effects might be mentioned here. First, the number of people for whom retirement is the right time to discover volunteering might have as a counterpart the number who, when they retire, stop doing volunteer (p.158) work because it was related to their life at their former workplace. Second, volunteer work right after retirement might be an extension of participation that started much earlier. Despite the regrettable absence of data from longitudinal surveys, available estimates show that a clear-cut majority – from 60 to 75 per cent – of retiree volunteers were already volunteers before retiring (Prouteau and Wolff, 2007). This high percentage of volunteers ‘who have just grown older’ and step up their participation once they retire might explain two noteworthy characteristics of senior volunteering: it is steadier, more regular (Table 7.2), and seniors are overrepresented in positions of responsibility inside voluntary organisations.

On average, volunteers over 60 put in five hours of work per week in an association –one hour more than those under 60. Their share in total volunteer work is equivalent to their percentage in the population over 15 years old. Their contribution has been estimated to amount to 212,000 full-time jobs, in other words, 26 per cent of all volunteer work. In charities and social work, it rises to more than 40 per cent.

What stands out in the landscape of French associations is the predominance of seniors in leadership positions: 57 per cent of the presidents of associations are at least 55 years old, and a third are over 65. Specifically, 46 per cent of the presidents are retirees. In four out of ten cases, the president is the founder of the organisation. Among people between 60 and 70 years old who belong to an association,

Table 7.2: Number of hours per year of voluntary work, 2002

Age group














Regular volunteering






Occasional volunteering






Volunteering sector







Culture and recreation












Social and health services
























Source: Survey Associative Life Survey, INSEE, 2002 (Prouteau and Wolff, 2007)

(p.159) 10 per cent of the women hold a position of responsibility; by comparison, the rate nearly doubles for men. According to recent data, which are yet to be confirmed from longitudinal surveys, the gender gap in volunteering has narrowed considerably among young retirees (Recherches & Solidarités, 2011).

Six out of ten retirees active in associations say they use the skills acquired while they were still working. These skills are more often relational than technical (Malet and Bazin, 2011). This can be related to the motivation for doing volunteer work mentioned more often by those over 60 (21.5 per cent) than under that age (12.9 per cent), namely, ‘meet people, make friends’. In their quest for sociability, young retirees definitely try to find an intergenerational setting; they do not feel at home in senior citizen organisations, where most members belong to the 80-85 age group.

From these data, given the reserves due to gaps in the statistics, a profile can be drawn of the typical senior volunteer, even though it might not represent the majority of volunteers in this age group: a man who used to work in a white-collar job in the private sector, is president of an advocacy group in which he has participated for a long time. His volunteer work taps into the skills and know how acquired during his life at work: managerial qualifications, consultancy, law, etc. His feminine counterpart tends to be a former civil servant, very likely a teacher, who is often a widow or single, and who has been involved for a long time in an association in education or social work (for example, literacy, tutoring).

The types of organisations that try to recruit seniors are, of course, but not only, senior citizen clubs. Volunteers over 60 have a lower rate than those under 60 in sports and education, but a higher rate in social work, charity, cultural and leisure activities and religion –people over 70 are more typically involved in the last two fields (see Table 7.1). In the leisure activities sector, it is worth mentioning that the associations oriented toward seniors (senior citizen clubs, retiree associations, veteran and alumni organisations) accounted for 23.2 per cent of volunteers over the age of 60 in 2002 (Prouteau and Wolff, 2007).

As mentioned previously, federations of retiree associations, some of them linked to labour unions, have been recognised as representing senior citizens and sit, therefore, on the advisory committees at various levels in the public administration that deals with old-age policy. Although these federations officially represent this category of the population and defend their interests, their role –even their existence –is not widely known, not even by retirees. Few national networks (p.160) propose to retirees volunteer assignments that require professional qualifications (in consultancy, for example), use ‘coaches’ over the age of 50 for developing sports adapted to people over that age, or have a clear intergenerational orientation by helping children learn to read. Since no study has followed up on the age pyramid of volunteers by association, it is impossible to describe the associations that mainly recruit senior volunteers. However, regular surveys of the leaders of associations have drawn attention to the degree of retiree involvement in neighbourhood activities (theatres, museums, libraries, friendly societies, and so on) or in operations related to national solidarity.

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

The discrepancy between the rate at which seniors join an association as members and at which they do volunteer work –along with the fact that a large majority of retiree volunteers (60-75 per cent) and, in particular, the ones who regularly volunteer, were already active members before they retired –lead to an examination of the individual, organisational and institutional factors underlying the decisions made by seniors to volunteer. Analysing them entails studying how volunteer work comes into competition with professional commitments and (unpaid) family care.

Opportunities and Restrictions for Volunteering for Older People

The two statistically most important factors at the individual level are education and the state of health rather than age itself (Sirven and Debrand, 2013). A qualitative analysis of the transitions between work and retirement brings to light the opportunities and limitations of three individual motivations for volunteering (France Bénévolat, 2010). These three types are likely to respond differently to institutional incentives and give rise to different problems for the associations where they volunteer:

  • Retirees who are used to being involved in causes or who volunteered during their youth or work life. Admission to retirement is an easy way for them to increase involvement by taking on new responsibilities in associations with which they are already familiar. This group represents a minority of retirees but the majority of retiree volunteers. (p.161)

  • Retirees who try to make up for their loss of status by volunteering. These new volunteers tend to maintain the same pace of activity and exercise of authority as in the firm where they used to work. They are often former white-collar workers, men who risk experiencing tensions in relations with wage earners in the association and who risk being disappointed since they fail to understand how associations differ from private companies.

  • Retirees who experience the shift towards retirement as a paradox. This group feel both a need to be socially involved and reluctance about doing volunteer work. They are seldom familiar with associations and do not know how to proceed, and fear being overbooked or lacking competence.

What does it mean at the organisational level? The first type forms the pillar of associations owing to its size and seniority in office holding. Two major risks for organisations can be detected in this case: the clearly perceived risk of a lack of turnover with, as a consequence, an ageing leadership; and the feeling of wear-and-tear, lassitude, which volunteers over 60 clearly express more often than those under 60. To cope with this two-fold risk, some associations have started appointing ‘pairs’ to positions of responsibility in order to share the workload and to be prepared in case of defection, ill health or death.

Quite different opportunities and difficulties for associations arise in relation to the second type of retiree volunteers. These volunteers, unlike those in the first type, tend to feel uneasy with the sense of activism that marks volunteer work in some associations. They are looking for activities that tap into their skills and qualifications in order to realise a project that, normally limited in time, will let them directly appreciate the results. A perception of the effectiveness of the volunteer work performed –although often invisible in the complicated operations of some associations –is the reason volunteers often mention. Three national organisations (France Bénévolat, Passerelles et Compétences, Espace Bénévolat) serve as ‘middlemen’ between applicants and associations; they ask the former for their profiles and the latter to define their needs. This sort of volunteer work is not yet widespread, however, because the heads of associations are not familiar with it.

Retiree volunteers of the third type more deeply challenge associations, since they hesitate to become involved, at least on a regular basis. Some associations, now aware of the limits of attracting these retirees through forums or mass media campaigns, have turned to recruiting through personal contacts, which, as all statistical (p.162) surveys show, is by far the major channel towards volunteering. Some associations have developed programmes whereby current members sponsor or tutor new recruits. Even though this third type wants to exercise control over its time budget, no association has tried to propose volunteer work that would be compatible with both the aspiration to experience retirement as a time of leisure and with the obligations of grandparents.

Although ageist practices cannot be detected in voluntary organisations, the increasing professionalisation of associations (in particular those that mainly depend on wage earners) should also be mentioned as an obstacle not only for retirees with a low level of qualifications (correlated statistically with less volunteering) but also for better-educated retirees. The latter might, after retirement, soon lose confidence in their skills, which often need updated, in new technology, for instance (Malet and Bazin, 2011).

At the political/institutional level –and unlike for young people –France has never had programmes that targeted seniors for volunteer work. Leaving aside the representation of retiree associations in public institutions, senior volunteering has recently had a place on the policymaking agenda on three occasions. First of all, the National plan on successful ageing (Bien vieillir) adopted in 2007 depicted the increased social participation of seniors in volunteer work as a way to boost their well-being and to prevent isolation. Since then, a handbook (Passport for active retirement) has been given to new retirees to inform them of the possibilities and procedures for volunteering, and to orient them. It urges retirees to volunteer in four fields: youth work, care for the aged, work with the ‘excluded’ and the environment. Second, an official report on senior citizens in 2009, detailed later (see p 166), has discussed the prospects of volunteering of older people. At the same time, few agreements signed as part of the obligation imposed on firms to open negotiations about senior employment before 1 January 2010 (with a fine amounting to 1 per cent of the total wage bill if the firm failed to do so) provide for allowing older employees to do civic service. But these practices have hardly been developed. Finally, 2012 was declared the EUYear of Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity, with many local initiatives undertaken in France (often as trivial as, for example, a regional prize for retiree volunteers). These three occasions have mainly amounted to communication stunts.

(p.163) Older people between employment and volunteering

Current trends in regard to the employment of older people are ambivalent. Given the prevailing idea that work is to be ‘shared’ among generations and resulting public policies favouring early exits, the French are not inclined to work beyond the age of retirement with a full pension. Only 48 per cent of 50- to 65-year-olds said they were in favour of working when there was no economic need to do so – a lower percentage than in other countries (ISSP, 1997). Thus, the French, after the Spanish, hold the strongest opinions against work for pay after retirement (European Commission, 2000). However, recent pension reforms and vulnerability of careers might leave no choice, thus making working for pay an economic necessity for many older people.

By gradually raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, along with the extension of the contribution period, successive pension reforms (1993, 2003, 2010) have set off an increase in the number of seniors in the labour market. Since 2000, all age groups, men as well as women, have been affected. Although the French employment rate of 55-to 64-year-olds (41.5 per cent) is still 8 percentage points lower than that in the EU15, it rose from 41.5 to 44.1 per cent for men and from 35.7 to 39.1 per cent for women between 2005 and 2011 (DARES, 2012). The employment rate in 2011 was more than 80 per cent for 50-to 54-year-olds, only 64 per cent for 55-to 59-year-olds, but then fell to 18.9 per cent for 60-to 64-year-olds. Thus two age thresholds still mark older employees' careers: 55 and 60, the latter deeply rooted in public opinion. The economic meltdown since 2008 has made it even harder to keep older wage earners on the workforce, and seniors are still overrepresented among the long-term unemployed. Moreover, despite public disincentives for pre-retirement schemes, some companies are still financing early exit arrangements.

Another reform adopted in 2009 loosened restrictions on combining a pension with wages. It is still too early to assess the impact, but available estimates suggest that more retirees will be drawing wages: 6.6 per cent of those who retired in 2004 cumulated wages with a pension during at least one of the four years following retirement (DARES, 2012). Seniors who work on retirement have contrasting motivations. Some of them –in particular former white-collar workers or those with qualifications that are in high demand –are strongly attracted towards doing consultancy for pay instead of as volunteer work. Furthermore, those in their fifties who have been unemployed for a long time and will soon be unable to draw (p.164) unemployment benefits ‘retire with pay’: they retire since they have no choice, do not draw a full pension, but hope to find work that pays enough to round their budgets. In this regard, it is possible to make a hypothesis of the time-competition effect played by recent reforms.

At the same time, the perception of the social utility of the volunteer work done by retirees in associations has broadened. It has been separated from the ‘feelings of lack of social utility’ among young (pre) retirees whom employers have pushed out of the workforce. Social utility came to be associated with the aspiration of some (pre)retirees to find in volunteer work a prolongation of the occupations that they used to have but that will now be done for free.2 Owing to the impact of EU studies and discussions that have emphasised the benefits on the individual's mental and physical well-being, the issue has taken a turn towards active ageing. A few larger firms in France have adopted employee volunteer programmes3 with two main aims: to manage the end of employees' careers and, more broadly, to improve their organisation's corporate social responsibility.

There is a dire need for a longitudinal study in France of the effects of making the work life longer on senior volunteering. As Table 7.1 shows, the volunteering rate of older age groups, most of whose members are still working (50-to 59-year-olds), is roughly the same as that of young retirees (60-to 69-year-olds), and is higher than the national average. However, the available data does not allow us to distinguish the age effect from the generational one.

Older people between family care and volunteering

No studies have been made in France to test the hypothesis of a conflict between the involvement of seniors in family care and their participation in volunteer work. The main question that has been officially raised concerns the compatibility of family care with participation in the labour market, especially for women (CAS, 2010). According to the SHARE survey (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe), France is among the countries where more grandmothers both work and look after grandchildren (usually on a regular basis). Thanks to the well-developed system of daycare centres, French grandmothers are more easily able to do both (Attias-Donfut, 2008). In like manner, a combination of public and private aid provides support for aged parents. France's long-term care policy has, since 1993, taken the form of cash-for-care with the goal of easing the burden on families. Only 36 per cent of the French think that an old parent who lives alone and needs regular care would be better off (p.165) if he/she lived with children (18 per cent), or if one of the children provided the necessary help at the parent's home (18 per cent) (Eurobarometer, 2007). The older people who need support receive a monthly allocation from departmental authorities. The amount depends on the beneficiary's state of health, income and housing (at home or in a residential setting). In 2010, allowances were provided to 1,117,000 people over the age of 60: 60 per cent at home, 40 per cent in institutions.

While home-based care (4.9 per cent) and institutional care (3.1 per cent) are not widespread in France among people aged 65 years or more (Huber et al, 2009), the majority (85 per cent) of people aged 80 and over live at home. When they have a disability or health problems, they receive the cash-for-care allowances; and in addition, 80 per cent of them receive support from their families, mostly from daughters or granddaughters. France has adopted a semi-formal ‘family carer’ policy: the cash-for-care allowance can be used to pay someone close (but not the spouse). Furthermore, since 2007 a leave of absence for family care allows family members who hold a job to take up to three months per year during their careers to tend to an aged parent. Although the number of family carers is increasing as the population grows older, it is not easy to foresee the impact on senior volunteer work. According to a few surveys (Le Bihan-Youinou and Martin, 2006), French senior women try to balance all their commitments (occupational, family or civic) by budgeting their time. This explains why the gender gap in volunteering has narrowed instead of widening. According to the heads of associations, the care that older volunteers provide to a spouse is one reason for interrupting or decreasing volunteer work (Poussou-Plesse et al, 2010).

Improving the match between supply of older candidates with the demand of voluntary organisations: future perspectives

According to regular surveys and studies, the heads of associations have a hard time recruiting new volunteers and finding skills according to their needs. One association out of three lacks volunteers. In France, the match between the ‘demand’ from associations for volunteers and the ‘supply’ of senior applicants raises the question of transitions between work and retirement. In this perspective, the successful development of the voluntary work of seniors is conditioned by its recognition by all the stakeholders (non-profit sector, private companies, public authorities and seniors) as a way to prolong working lives.

(p.166) Concluding the report Seniors and citizenship (CESE, 2009), the Social and Economic Council underlines the win-win advantages of such a partnership. Its proposals address both organisations (non-profit organisations or companies) and public authorities. It depicts the idea of the social utility of volunteer work in a context where the state carries responsibility for social investment:

  • Voluntary associations are advised to bring more transparency to their activities and to respect volunteers in regard to their timely investment. The first contact of new volunteers with the non-profit organisations makes them face their stereotypes on ‘real voluntary work’ and their fear of not being able to control their time investment. A charter on relations between employees and volunteers could help to better define voluntary work conditions and time investment. Developing training and mentoring programmes could contribute to better value volunteers' skills, but also to retain them in organisations.

  • Through collaboration with voluntary associations, private firms could promote longer working lives and improve their corporate image. For older workers participating in employees' volunteer programmes it could be the occasion to set up a new life project.

  • Public authorities could create territorial poles dedicated to the development of up-to-date solutions to face demographic ageing. While designing new programmes that enhance volunteering, municipalities should also pay attention to the diversity within the group of older people.

  • At a national level, pension funds could promote the advantages of volunteering more actively and much earlier. Given the fact that senior volunteers have often been volunteering long before retirement, it is important to encourage volunteering as early as possible. Pension agencies and social centres could thus help older people evaluate their skills as well as perform a health check, and help them setting their life goals.

The key question that marked public debates during the EU Year of Volunteering in 2011 was related to the lifelong training of volunteers, including retirement. Further professionalisation of associations requires more regular training of people involved in volunteering. Last but not least, budget restrictions that associations face, along with the insufficiency of public policies aiming at recognising voluntary activities, appear as major obstacles to the development of training programmes.

(p.167) Conclusions

Since 2000, the participation rate of 60-to 70-year-olds in volunteer work has not increased substantially and is equal to the national average: approximately 25 per cent. This phenomenon has two explanations. First, in France as in other countries, older volunteers are mainly those who already have experience with and who are committed to the activity. Second, retiring newcomers replace those who abandon volunteering. ‘Volunteers who have aged’, according to Gallagher's expression (1994), thus play an important role in the French non-profit sector. They are overrepresented in positions of responsibility and spend long hours volunteering. However, this model of strong commitment does not fit the majority of retirees who look for a better control of time spent on different activities.

In a context of an evolving welfare state and a non-profit sector characterised by increasing cooperation between different actors (as, for example, voluntary organisations, institutions and companies), the situation in France could be described in terms of a gap between public policies aimed at encouraging senior volunteering as part of work–life activities, and the real nature of volunteers' commitment to non-profit organisations enhanced by their sense of civic responsibility. Public policies and organisations that seek to encourage senior volunteering do not succeed in taking into account the diversity within the retirees' population. This implies a better understanding of the mechanisms of volunteer commitment, for example, of the importance of word-of-mouth volunteer recruitment underlined by many empirical studies, or of the role of informal family care, especially for women. For many retirees, volunteering is directly linked to the possibility of taking part in the life of the local community and creating new interpersonal relations. Nevertheless, the social utility of senior volunteering still suffers from poor public recognition. The historical roots of this phenomenon are related to employment policies and retirement system reforms that had an impact on work–retirement transitions. Since the explosion of early-exit schemes in the 1980s, a ‘reserve army of volunteers’ was meant to join the non-profit sector, bringing their skills and enthusiasm. However, their contribution was only praised when related to specific forms of volunteering such as those where their professional skills were used.

Active ageing is promoted as a positive way to envisage the end of working lives and retirement. Companies are given an important role in bridging work to retirement. Pension agencies and social centres are other key actors in informing future and present retirees about the (p.168) societal benefits of seniors' volunteering and the individual benefits for older volunteers. The arguments used to build the recognition of the social utility of senior volunteering focus mainly on the possibilities of lifelong training, the importance of productive contribution and a substitution status. Will this rhetoric, with its focus on a productive utility of volunteering, have a positive impact on volunteering among older people? The answer is not quite that simple. On the one hand, the feeling of being useful does not appear to be an important factor of motivation for French senior volunteers. On the other hand, the processes of professionalisation of non-profit organisations and new requirements contribute to the development of new forms of management coming from the productive sector and applying equally to volunteers. This could have a negative impact on the capacity of associations to attract volunteers given that the idea of a free commitment that characterises the act of volunteering is questioned. The end of working lives in France continues to be a concern: they are often abrupt because of lay-offs, they are poorly prepared and there is rarely a transition between full-time work and total inactivity. That is why, in order to respond to a double aspiration –both self-expressive and service-oriented –of retirees, progressive retirement schemes should be encouraged and developed. This solution has been promoted by a few policy makers and social scientists (Taddei, 2000) as allowing a better balance of social times and activities, but remains underdeveloped.

(p.169) Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the Centre d'Etudes des Mouvements Sociaux in Paris for its support.


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(1) For ‘small’ associations, pay for a staff member may not exceed three fourths of the official minimum wage. ‘Big’ associations may not pay more than three staff members within a limit of three times an amount set by social security; in addition, these people benefit from a leave of absence to fill their duties of representation, from a training fund and from social security coverage.

(2) Three networks were set up that focused exclusively on mobilising (pre) retires, pioneer associations addressing mainly former white-collar workers, and proposing volunteer work as consultants in the service of economic development in France or abroad: ECTI (Échanges et Consultations Techniques Internationaux), AGIR (Association Générale des Intervenants Retraités) and EGEE (Entente des Générations pour l'Emploi et l'Entreprise).

(3) The mécénat de compétences (skills' sponsorship) targets wage earners who devote time at work to projects sponsored by the firm. It refers to the work done for free by wage earners or retirees as consultants on short assignments.