Making Volunteer Work More Visible


A great deal of work in the United States is done by volunteers who are not counted as employed in official statistics of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—even if their work is done in a traditional workplace. Why? Because they are not paid. John A. Turner, Bruce W. Klein, and Constance Sorrentino, three researchers who consider making volunteer work more visible, point out that two persons doing the same work—one working in retail sales and being paid is counted as employed, while another doing nearly identical work in a charity organization consignment shop, is not counted as employed. Under the current definition of unemployment people are considered employed—only if they work for pay or profit.[1]

Turner, Klein, and Sorrentino consider whether there should be an expanded definition of employment based on the nature of the activity people are doing and not solely on monetary compensation. They presented the findings of their study at a recent meeting of the Columbia University Seminar on Full Employment, Social Welfare, and Equity, with which NJFAN is closely associated. Turner, Klein, and Sorrentino cite the Johns Hopkins Volunteer Measurement Project: “Including volunteering as a subset of work means that the tangible and invaluable contributions volunteering makes to individuals and society are being recognized as a force that should be tracked and measured so that it can be better supported and fostered.”[2] The number of volunteers in the United States is quite substantial—63 million or 25% of the population in a recent year. Older people volunteer at about the same rate as the general population, but median hours of volunteer work of people 65 and older are close to double that of the total population 16 and over.

Thus, by omitting volunteer labor from official employment statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics leaves out a substantial amount of work performed in the U.S. economy. The authors of this article do not suggest changes in the official statistical concepts of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics since consistency is important in a historical data series. However, they discuss issues pertaining to an expanded measure of work that would supplement the current definition by including volunteers, and they construct a measure consistent with that definition from data in currently available surveys. These measures, they write, would be particularly useful for understanding the labor force activity of older people–especially those workers retired from regular employment and doing volunteer work. Moreover, they point out, the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the importance of volunteering—even though the measure of volunteer work they propose does not include “direct volunteers” who provide help on their own such as shopping or household chores. Such direct volunteering greatly increased during the Pandemic. The measure proposed by Turner, Klein, and Sorrentino, however, is confined to volunteer work provided through an organization because that is the current statistical definition of volunteers used in the United States. New data collections would be required to broaden the definition to encompass all volunteers.

The definition of work, these authors point out, has important implications at both the micro- and macrolevels. At the microlevel, the definition of work affects our understanding of how people spend their time. At the macrolevel, it affects our understanding of the aggregate amount of productive activity people are undertaking. The authors refer to a statement of the Current Population Survey (CPS): ”how work is defined affects how people define themselves.” Those of us who advocate a Job Guarantee recognize the deeply destructive effects of unemployment on the self-image of those who are denied the opportunity to work—psychological and social wounds as well as economic deprivation.

According to Turner, Klein, and Sorrentino, an expanded definition of work could supplement the current definition and provide an additional measure of work that could be useful in enhancing our understanding of the transition from work to retirement. They write that such a definition “would recognize that many people, particularly retirees with pension benefits, do not require or need monetary compensation but will engage in volunteer work because of its nonmonetary benefits, including psychological and health benefits.” This suggests that volunteer work is often a privilege and one that people who are unemployed or who have suffered poor pay and sporadic employment are denied.

Using data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) collected by the Census Bureau and published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the authors add a measure of volunteer labor in addition to the three existing measures–and the ones used in NJFAN’s Real Count: employed, unemployed, and not in the labor force (not employed and not officially looking for work). The fourth measure they propose is volunteering in an organization at least one hour a week and not in the labor force. Adding these to the number officially employed in 2015 brings the general population’s labor force participation rate up from 65.5% to 73.4%. The increase is much greater for the 65 and plus population: from 23.5% to 41.0%. Moreover, as previously cited, the elderly volunteer much more time than the general population.

Such an additional measure of labor activity would not only increase public perception of the contribution of the elderly to economic activity but would help to broaden the conception of work. Were direct volunteer work to be included, the increases and changes in perception would be even greater. For example, altogether excluded from calculations of labor activity and this definition of volunteer work is the enormous amount of family care provided. Adding that to the definition of voluntary work would give visibility to the huge amount of unpaid work women contribute to the economy and perhaps elevate this role in the minds of policymakers. Reportedly, the British economist Joan Robinson observed: “A man who marries his housekeeper reduces the GNP.” And Marx viewed family care as reproducing the labor force.

The attempt to make volunteer work visible has a special appeal to those of us in the National Jobs for All Network who work hard on behalf of our goal—the guarantee of useful, living-wage work for all. Most JFAN Workers Are Volunteers. Some of us worked to keep alive the dream of full employment and an end to the scourge of unemployment while we were full-time employees. Retirement freed us to work more for what FDR considered “the first and most fundamental” of his proposed Economic Rights. And we particularly honor our colleagues who currently combine full-time paid employment with their volunteer advocacy on behalf of Jobs for All. We need more volunteers to end unemployment and guarantee good jobs.

JOIN US! Increase Volunteer Output and Help to Bring Decent, Paid Work to All

[1] John A. Turner, Bruce W. Klein, and Constance Sorrentino, “Making Volunteer Work visible: Supplementary Measures of Work in Labor Force Statistics,” Monthly Labor Review, July 2020:
John A. Turner is director of the Pension Policy Center, Washington, DC; Bruce W. Klein is senior research economist at the Pension Policy Center, Washington, DC; Constance Sorrentino is the former chief of the Division of International Labor Comparisons, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
[2] The Johns Hopkins Volunteer Measurement Project, Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University),

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