Healthy ageing through assisting communities

| October 26, 2016

In Australia we have long relied on voluntary service to help our communities, but today’s hectic working lives serve as a brake on this voluntarism. Russ Grayson suggests paying retired people for skilled work to support under resourced volunteers.

‘Volunteers’ was a popular song by the late-seventies US West Coast Rock band, Jefferson Airplane. It was about the turmoil then wracking America, the opposition to the war in Vietnam and the social revolution then filling the streets of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury.

The idea of voluntarism, however, is probably more at home in Australia where communities have long relied on voluntary service to provide their needs. Unlike some other countries, in Australia communities rely on voluntary bushfire fighting and emergency services units to respond to crises. They, like so much else in Australian society, are supported by the voluntary service of ordinary people who turn out to assist in times of crisis.

There is a great Australian tradition of voluntarism. I could add the volunteers of the search and rescue units who go out in sometimes awful weather to search for lost bushwalkers.


Today’s hectic working lives serve as a brake on the voluntarism that is so much a part of Australian culture. The time poverty stemming from long working hours, the practice of taking work home to complete and too heavy workloads add to demands on time such as weekend family activities, the need for social time and time alone to wind down and chill out.

These time limitations affect community organisations. People want to contribute but what they can do is necessarily limited. Even though their potential is greater, this limits what voluntary community organisations can achieve.


It is unfortunate that some in government have unrealistic expectations of people’s willingness to contribute to the greater good through voluntarism.

More than once have I heard local government staff saying that the ‘community’ will do something they want them to do; that communities will supply the voluntary labour and skills to make something happen. This works sometimes, but my experience in local government and the voluntary community sector suggests that it is those ideas that communities themselves come up with that stand the greater chance of voluntary engagement.

In instances like this, council staff are outsourcing work they are paid to administer to volunteers. That can be successful, but it works best where volunteers steer the programs, where they have authentic participation and autonomy-in-cooperation with council staff in implementing the programs. Pushing the responsibility for council programs onto volunteers can, sooner or later, hit the wall that is limited volunteer time.

Seemingly contradicting this was the stipulation on voluntary work I discovered when working for the City of Sydney, the council that administers the central Sydney conurbation. There, staff were not permitted to do more than ten hours voluntary work a week. Apart from the City taking control of peoples’ lives outside working hours, it situated the council as the main thing in staff life, a potentially erroneous assumption.

I imagine it was treated in the same way so many government impositions are voluntarily treated by Australians, by completely ignoring it. Even though I didn’t contradict the City’s attempted control of my personal time by working voluntarily in excess of the stipulated time, I never considered it when doing voluntary work. Some government and corporate attempts to control personal life and freedom are best ignored.


If time places constraints on voluntary contribution then perhaps it is time to look at ways of extending the work that volunteers do.

One of the recommendations of health authorities and ageing researchers is that retired people can remain mentally and physically healthy and active, and continue to contribute to society, through social engagement. Combining this with support work for the voluntary community sector is what many already do. Institutionalising that by paying skilled support people would both contribute to personal and community health and enable voluntary organisations to do more.

I am not talking about replacing volunteers with paid staff. What I am talking about is government paying retired people and those on a pension for doing administrative and other support work, a couple of days or so a week, a tax-free loading on their pensions. Other than improving the quality of life for those engaging with this opportunity, society benefits in freeing up volunteers to do important implementation work, government budgets benefit by reduced health expenditure and voluntary community organisations benefit by having some of their work done in a way that increases the capacity of the organisations.

I don’t hold much hope of government doing anything like this. Their focus on expenditure is to cut social programs while at the same time increasing their own pensions, which is lots of money for doing nothing. That’s in Australia, anyway, which accounts in part for the traditional Australian cynicism towards politicians and their low social status.

Perhaps one day we will have a government for whom imagination is not a foreign concept, a government willing to try something new over the long term. Paying what for government is a modest sum to people to do the work of supporting Australia’s voluntary sector would be an investment in community health, community self-support and more resilient society.



  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    October 31, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    Retiree workforce

    Having worked in the Commonwealth Public Service I can only agree with the above. I found that public servants tend, on the whole, to accept whatever is in writing as true and forget verbal information. I also found (and this has been backed up in my reading of scientific literature) that promotion goes to those who ‘do not rock the boat’ and are not going to become a competitor to those above them on the promotions list. The truly able are usually placed into areas where they can quietly stagnate. This means that a public servant will often not voluntarily work with an outsider over whom he has little or no control. The idea of using retired people to do administrative jobs on a part time basis would be seen as a diminution of authority within a department since the normal application of subtle threats to promotion would not apply. But still, the idea is great.