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VSO's 50th anniversary call to the ‘Missing Middle’ generation

As it marks its 50th anniversary this weekend, leading international development charity VSO is launching a bid to reach out to the 'missing middle' and reverse a recent decline in professionals in their 30s and 40s volunteering to work with poor communities around the world.

The charity says that despite an overall increase in the number of volunteers, the proportion in their 30s and 40s has halved since 2000. It puts this down to the growing pressures of modern life which it says are thwarting people from fulfilling their heartfelt aspirations.

Professionals in their 30s and 40s are a crucial target for VSO as they have the right level of experience for many VSO roles. But VSO is finding potential recruits in this age group increasingly feel unable to volunteer, because of pressures such as getting on the property ladder, career progression, financial commitments or meeting family responsibilities, that don't affect older 'golden gappers' or younger people. They also fear that volunteering will not be valued as good experience by current or future employers.

VSO acknowledges these concerns, but argues that the rewards far outweigh the challenges. It says the barriers to volunteering are not insurmountable and can be overcome through determination and good planning.

The charity says that there are good reasons to volunteer in your 30s and 40s:

  • Mid career professionals have the skills and experience required by organisations in the developing world.
  • A major recent global study into happiness found that people are most likely to become depressed in middle age - peaking at 44 in the case of the UK because this is when people quell their 'infeasible aspirations'. Researchers concluded that fulfilling their aspirations, rather than ignoring them because they think they are unrealistic, may be the key to happiness for this group.
  • Research by the Chartered Management Institute in 2006 found that 94 per cent of employers agree that long-term overseas voluntary activities broaden skills and experiences, and 60 per cent of employers agree that voluntary projects can be an effective method in developing management skills.
  • Increasing uncertainty in financial and pension markets means that mid-career professionals may not have the opportunity to volunteer in retirement.

Mark Goldring, Chief executive of VSO said:

"People increasingly view international volunteering as something for gap year students or retired professionals, but it's for people of all ages. We acknowledge that people in their 30s and 40s may have commitments which younger or older people do not have, but we are urging them to see that they are missing out on a golden opportunity to make a valuable contribution to international development and enrich their own lives."

VSO welcomed the recent move by the Government to meet the pension contributions of public sector workers while they volunteer and heralded this as an example of the kind of support that will give mid career professionals the incentive to volunteer overseas. More far-sighted businesses are also backing employees who want to volunteer abroad, but there are still many who are not fully aware of the value to their employees and their businesses in the long-term. VSO is calling on businesses to make a commitment to support sabbaticals for employees who want to share their skills through recognised volunteer schemes.

Since 1958 VSO has sent over 32,000 people to share their skills with some of the poorest communities in the world. Please visit www.vso.org.uk or call 020 8780 7500 to find out how to get involved.

For further information, please contact George Ames on 0207 403 2230 or 07816 857 502, or email george@forster.co.uk

Notes to editors

· VSO is the world's leading independent international development organisation working through skilled volunteers around the world. · Interviews and photography are available upon request · The research into global patterns of happiness was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine. See a summary of the report. · The Chartered Management Institute Report can be found at http://www.vso.org.uk/volunteering/career-break-or-career-development.asp · Please see supplementary case study sheet for further details of returned VSO volunteers

Supplementary Case Studies: The Missing Middle Generation

Krishna Ahmed, 48, from Mill Hill, North London, volunteered twice with VSO on short-term assignments despite running her own business. She first went to Ethiopia for a month in 2006 and then went to Ghana for three months last year. On both occasions she used her years of experience in the textile industry to help local businesses improve their management and quality control processes.

"I wanted to help by sharing my experience and knowledge," said Ms Ahmed. "The only way this was possible was to give myself a sabbatical, but it was well worth it and I would love to do it again. Since I've come back I've become a bit of a campaigner and have set up a fund to support the farmers I met in Ghana."

Dominic Elson, 42 from Gloucestershire, was a VSO management advisor in Indonesia for two years.

"My wife and I were moaning about the state of the world, and were realising that just participating in the economy was not enough to change things. We wanted to do something, but more than just going to build a school in Rwanda for a month, we wanted to work on something sustainable. The risk of stepping off the treadmill is there, but if it's approached in the same intelligent way that you treat buying a house or changing jobs it will work. So we were motivated to change the world, and we had the means to do it, as we had skills and experience to offer.

"I'd left school at 17 and went straight into work, I felt I was owed some time. It took 18 months of planning. We sold the marketing consultancy that I owned, and our house. In the short-term we might have lost out by selling the house, but in the long-term the market will come down, and it will even out".

"It has changed my life, I am now running my own business again, in international development management. I took the opportunity to do a Masters with the Open University whilst I was in Indonesia, and my wife did a Masters in public health. Now I do consultancy work in development. Volunteering helped me in broadening my knowledge and gave me a lot more depth of experience and skills which I can now draw on. It was a rich and rewarding experience. You get to encounter people you'd never meet any other way, and develop an understanding and affinity with people from a totally different culture."

Freda Ellis, 49, of Cerne Abbas in Dorset has just completed two years' voluntary work with VSO in Cambodia. Ms Ellis left her job as headteacher of a primary school and let out her house to cover her mortgage while she went on the placement.

"I was a regional education management adviser based in Banteay Meanchey province towards the north west corner of Cambodia," said Ms Ellis. "The Cambodian government are working towards the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. A big part of this is changing their schools so that they are more efficient and child friendly and it was this that I was helping with".

"I'd always wanted to do VSO and I decided that now was the time to go," she continued. "I had acquired a high level of skills and experience which I was ready to use in a new environment. Age and fitness were still on my side so I just went for it and would love to go again as soon as I can."

Justin Scully, 38, was an area manager for a large UK brewery five years ago, responsible for the running of 20-25 pubs, when he decided to volunteer for VSO. "I loved my job," he says. "But what appealed was something more than a career break. I didn't want to just travel - this was more a chance to use my skills and, without wishing to sound sanctimonious, to give something back."

"The support from VSO was fantastic, and it was easy to sort out mortgage payments. It seemed minor considerations really which were by far out-weighed by the benefits of volunteering."

He went to work for a Nigerian trade organisation. "I was really surprised at how transferable my skills were, and how things I didn't really consider to be skills - computer literacy, basic management stuff - were really useful."

Justin now uses his skills from the private sector along with his experiences from Nigeria, in his current job as deputy-director at Shelter. "What it's done for me is really broaden my career prospects and my career outlook. I've realised how transferable my skills are," he says.

To set up an interview with a returned volunteer please contact George Ames, 020 7403 2230, or 07816 857 502

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