Community service drops after high school

Community service declines significantly from age 18 to 24 and then levels out, according to new research based on Monitoring the Future data. Wray-Lake and colleagues used 36 years of US-national surveys to explore the trajectory of civic engagement across age (18-26 years old), time (1976-2011), and demographic factors.


The drop in community service after high school has been remarkably consistent since the mid-1970s. This holds true even though volunteering during the last year of high school has gone up in more recent years. In other words, the age-related change in community service during young adulthood remains robust in the face of historical change. Powerful and consistent socialization and developmental forces seem to affect civic engagement during the transition to adulthood.


Demographic factors play a role — in the last year of high school, community service is higher than average for female, more religious, higher grade earning, and higher parent educated youth. Community service then declines more sharply for young women and religious and higher grade earning youth. Women’s civic engagement catches up to men’s levels by age 26. Youth who report no college plans at age 18 experience less decline in community service. Participants who receive a college degree experience a less negative and a flatter trajectory, meaning higher levels of community service at each age.


Declining community service across young adulthood may be a normative development in the US. Nevertheless, civic engagement is important for thriving communities and is linked to better health and wellbeing. The authors recommend additional research to understand the variations in community service across the transition to adulthood. They also call for more concerted policy efforts to encourage sustained participation in community.


The developmental course of community service across the transition to adulthood in a national U.S. sample is written by Wray-Lake, Schulenberg, Keyes, and Shubert, and published in the December 2017 issue of Developmental Psychology.


Monitoring the Future is in its 42nd year with continuous funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.