TED Conversations

Letitia Falk

Lab Technician/Recent MSc graduate, University of British Columbia


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Would society benefit or suffer from volunteering replacing employment?

I heard a statistic last year that really struck a chord with me: that "the upcoming generation to enter into the workforce is less hard working, but more willing to volunteer" (source unknown). I found this so interesting because it seems paradoxical. Aren't there just hard workers and lazy people? What's with these lazy volunteers? And can't you volunteer and get paid to do the same activities? One explanation is that there are preferred activities that people would rather be doing, and that, finding it impossible to get paid to do them, people volunteer. Another explanation is that the actual form of payment for an activity (monetary reward versus gratitude and personal satisfaction) determines its enjoyment.

For some reason people FEEL better about having done something they volunteered their time to, than doing something they consider a duty. People like to have a sense of personal freedom.

There have been a number of talks in the field of business and education lately that have described research showing that creative thinking is done best without restrictions or rewards. In other words, people are surprisingly intrinsically motivated and will work better and more creatively without being forced to by the need for a job, but rather by the desire to contribute to society. These ideas run smack up against many of our preconceived ideas about human motivation. People worry that without rewards, there is no incentive for people to contribute to society.

Now, there ARE less desirable jobs (like manufacturing, cleaning, service) that are less enjoyable than others, and which people need to be "persuaded" into taking. But as more and more of those jobs are replaced by technology, will it become possible for society to function through voluntary contribution? Without the threat of poverty by unemployment what would you do with your day?

Also not a TED talk but relevant:


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    Dec 10 2011: Volunteering is great, but personally I believe everyone should be compensated for work they do, even if it is just volunteering their time (which, let's face it, is the most valuable thing there is.) Society could function, but all of these volunteers would need to be subsidized in one way or another -- not necessarily monetarily, but paid in goods or services, given food or shelter, etc. Not to sound selfish or greedy, but I'll volunteer my time to a food pantry if it means bringing home a bag of groceries -- I can feel good about donating my time to the pantry and helping others, but at the same time I have an obligation to myself and my family, and I can feel good that I had something to show for the work I did that day -- no time was "wasted" and everyone wins. Volunteering works if everyone wins. For some, winning is a feeling, for others it's college credit, putting food on the table, winning an award, etc. But for society to function on volunteering I think we need to be able to survive on it, too. That's my $0.02USD anyway, but what the hell do I know, I just build websites.

    To address the second question, whether we're rich or poor, employed, self-employed, whatever, I think we're all in danger of poverty (whether by unemployment or disaster) that's why it's important to know what you want to do and do it -- and if you "don't know what you want to do" yet, decide on something and see where it takes you -- you have no time to waste in this life.

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