Although for many, the question of choosing paid versus volunteer work is not an issue since we all need some kind of income. There are times, however, when it is necessary to decide between the two and do a compare and contrast analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of either option. The incentives for a worker to labor for profit are quite clear; financial security and the possible promise of retirement and healthcare benefits, for example. The average worker expects a regular salary performs the duties required by his job description often for the general end of receiving that payment and perhaps feeling positive about a job well done.

Paid workers certainly comprise the majority of the population and their role in the social and economic system of commerce and service is quite clear. What one must question, however, is where volunteer work fits into the economic and social landscape. Generally, volunteer workers are driven by forces such as the desire to help or to contribute something meaningful to society. They are willing to devote hours to an institution, organization, or individual with minimal material reward. Most volunteers admit that they serve their community out of this personal desire, but what is not clear is why, other than a possible lack of employment opportunities in a given area, these women and men decide to commit themselves to a venture that has little benefit for them in a capitalist society. While both paid work and volunteer work have their own set of drawbacks and benefits, it is worth comparing the two in order to gain a better understanding of why volunteer work exists in a labor-driven economy and society as well as how both of these benefit the individual and the society as a whole.

Defining paid work is simple because it is the dominant force behind of our lives as well as our economy. Paid workers enter into a binding contract with their employer to perform specified duties for payment. Paid workers are present in nearly every imaginable sector and while the amount of income, level of job satisfaction, and other issues may vary, these are men and women working to produce personal capital and perhaps maintain a benefit (retirement, health, dental) package as well. While defining these paid workers is simple, volunteer work is a more elusive concept and requires a more strict definition. Volunteer work is “unpaid work provided to parties to whom the worker owes no contractual, familial, or friendship obligations" (Wilson 1997). In many senses, volunteers do much the same work that their paid counterparts perform, the only difference being the obvious lack of income.

Since most economic and academic definitions of volunteer labor contend that volunteers cannot be called such is they are volunteering for someone they know personally or have a commitment to, it is interesting to examine the figures related to volunteering. Consider that “6.8 percent of the total United States workforce are full-time volunteers with 4.6 percent in private nonprofits, 0.4 percent in business—not including family members working for free—and 1.8 percent in the public sector" (Liao-Troth 2001). Certainly, this is not a large number of volunteers and the reasons for this are varied. Paid work naturally involves payment for services performed and thus even though a paid employee of a company might not exact the same emotional or moral benefits from his or her job, the return is what allows for the raising of a family and purchasing of consumer goods. In a capitalist economy paid workers are so numerous because of the purchasing power a steady income from a paid job offers. Also of importance, most volunteer positions do not offer workers medical, dental, and other opportunities and benefits and thus the system makes it difficult to avoid working for payment.

Interestingly, statistics reveal that many of those who work as volunteers have other occupations that provide the income necessary to raise a family and provide other consumer goods. “Much volunteer activity comes from employed persons with high productivity and opportunity costs of time—prime-age college-educated workers" (Freeman 1997). Since these are people who have a great deal of security from their full-time job, the option of working as a volunteer helps to pass away free time in a constructive or socially active way. It should be noted that those who volunteer obviously could not do so unless they had an outside paid job to support them and provide the benefits that volunteer labor cannot. This means that while volunteer work might be enjoyable or useful, there is not the possibility for one to have a long-term future as a volunteer unless there is income and benefits coming in from the work of a spouse or another source. In such a case, volunteer labor in a capitalist society is obviously not a priority since a worker must have something to show for his or her time. It is also important to point out that this creates a shortage of volunteers and therefore, aside from the demographic listed above, other volunteers are college and high school students who are still under the financial watch of parents or guardians.

Aside from the more obvious differences between paid versus volunteer work stated above, there are also several implicit elements to examine. For example, in a recent study, the issue of job satisfaction among paid versus volunteer workers and the results concluded that volunteer workers showed a far greater sense of satisfaction than those who were being paid. “Variable entered in the first steps were gender, age, ethnic background, and job satisfaction scores" (Cote 2002). Those who were paid for their work often complained far more frequently of injustice in the workplace, income disputes, and other problems. While nearly 62 percent stated they were relatively pleased at their place of employment, this pales in comparison to the 88 percent of volunteers who claimed they were satisfied with their job (Cote 2002). Although these numbers vary between paid and volunteer workers, another study indicates that both types of workers would react virtually the same in the same workplace situation and it is noted that “both volunteers and paid employees would respond similarly to poor treatment or good treatment by the organization" (Liao-Troth 2001). In sum, there are few differences in the way employees, either paid or volunteers, wish to be treated even if the overall job satisfaction numbers vary widely between the two. One of the biggest differences between paid versus volunteer work is that there is a great level of personal choice involved in volunteering. Thos who wish to devote their time to an organization without the possibility of financial compensation are often choosing to do so because they have firm beliefs in the mission of the organization. While this is not to say that many paid workers are not doing what they want for a living, there is not the same moral backing to their decision to enter a desired industry. This could be one of the reasons why there is a greater sense of job satisfaction among volunteers—because they have a completely personal stake in their work and are usually doing their volunteer service because of ethical, moral, or emotional reasons.

While there are several apparent differences between paid versus volunteer labor that have been discussed in this compare and contrast essay, one aspect they share in common is having the potential to be personally enriching experiences as well as helpful for one’s resume. Before committing to hire a potential employee, companies look for experience as well as proof that the prospective employee is willing to work hard for a cause. Those with paid work experience have the benefit of experience since they understand the complexities of their industry in a professional sense, and those who volunteer also have an upper hand because volunteering can offer unique experiences and demonstrate an individual’s willingness to work for an idea. Even while one might not be getting paid in the form of salary for a volunteer job, these experiences can give a volunteer the upper hand in the job market. For young people, especially college students, volunteering can be beneficial because some have the time and financial resources as well as the resume in its early stages. Needless to say, both paid and volunteer work can be excellent opportunities for gaining the experience that so many potential employers value.

Many volunteers consider their work to be emotionally rewarding, especially since they are working with the organization of their choice and for causes that move them. While this is not to suggest that paid employees cannot feel the same way about their profession, this seems more true in the case of volunteers, especially considering the job satisfaction rates mentioned previously. While everyone needs some income to stay afloat, especially in the current economic climate, the need for volunteers in all sectors is always present. Even though paid versus volunteer work differs greatly, perhaps a combination of the two would allow the average person to make a contribution to society while they fulfilled their own financial obligations to themselves or their family.

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References / Sources

Côté. (2002). A longitudinal analysis of the association between emotion regulation, job satisfaction, and intentions to quit. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23(8), 947

Freeman. (1997). Working for Nothing: The Supply of Volunteer Labor. Journal of Labor Economics, 15(1), 140

Liao-Troth. (2001). Attitude Differences Between Paid Workers and Volunteers. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 11(4), 423

Wilson. (1997). Who Cares? Toward an Integrated Theory of Volunteer Work. American Sociological Review, 62(5), 694