Each generation has its own defining characteristics and is often identified by the events that shaped it. As the largest living generation for decades, baby boomers (1946 to 1964) have had an outsized impact on every aspect of society because of their sheer enormity. But, no more! In April, millennials (1981 to 1997) eclipsed baby boomers as the largest living generation, at 75.4 million strong.1

Generations and Selected Events That Shaped Them

Because of their size, every behavior of these two generations has been under scrutiny, including philanthropy. Does each cohort leave a distinct imprint on philanthropy? Do charitable giving patterns change across generations? And, if so, what are the implications for philanthropy?

Recently, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy set out to explore whether and how generation, gender and marriage affect charitable giving. Previous research has demonstrated that shifting patterns have an effect on charitable giving behavior, but no research has addressed whether there are differences in giving to charity across generations by gender and marital status. Women Give 2016, released in November, is the first study to examine this topic.

Women’s Influence over Charitable Decision-Making Has Grown

The Women Give 2016 report, Giving in young adulthood: Gender differences and changing patterns across the generations, finds that men’s and women’s donor behavior has changed over the past four decades and that women now have greater influence over charitable decision-making.

To compare giving behavior across a 40-year period, the study examined giving by different generations at the same points in their lives – pre-boomers (also called the silent generation) and Gen X/millennials – when they were young adults, ages 25 to 47, in the 1970s and the 2000s. It explored whether generational change in giving is similar or different among single women, single men and married couples.

The study found that Gen X and millennial single women today give at about the same level as pre-boomer single women did in the 1970s. At the same time, Gen X and millennial single men and married couples are giving at lower levels than did their pre-boomer counterparts.

In addition, the percentage of Gen X and millennial couples in which women influence charitable giving has grown compared with pre-boomer couples, as has the level of giving by those female-influenced couples.

These two findings augment an expanding body of knowledge that gender matters in philanthropy. Studies have consistently found that women are more likely to donate than similarly situated men, tend to give more to charitable organizations and are more prone to spread their giving across more organizations when controlling for factors that affect charitable giving such as income, wealth and education. Women Give 2012 focused on the effect of age and gender on charitable giving by baby boomers and older Americans. The research found that boomer and older women are more likely than their male counterparts to donate to charity and give more, despite constraints that may adversely affect their financial viability as they age: risk aversion, especially in financial decision-making, longer life expectancy, being single as they age and less money available in retirement.

What Prompted the Rise of Women’s Influence in Charitable Decision-Making?

Over the past 40 years, changes in education, employment and household structure have resulted in greater financial and social independence for women. These shifts are reshaping how they approach philanthropy, driving increased engagement and decision-making. As Pat Mitchell, former vice president at IBM and former chair of the Women’s Leadership Council at United Way Worldwide, stated: “Philanthropy is the last frontier for women.”

More women than men have received bachelor’s degrees since 1982, and for the past several years, more females than males received doctorates. Not only has women’s labor force participation increased steadily, but today they are the primary breadwinner in four out of 10 households.2 In addition, household structure is far more varied now than it was 40 years ago. The number of single-person households has grown 60% since the 1970s – from 17.1% to 27.5%.3 Today, both men and women are delaying marriage, and women, when they marry, have fewer children.

Demographic Comparisons of Families in the 1970s and 2000s

Such demographic changes have affected women’s increased influence in charitable decision-making both as individuals and household members. In addition, research has found that women tend to be more empathic and altruistic than men – behaviors that influence philanthropy. In this context, the shifting pattern of charitable decision-making across generations in which women now exercise more influence is a logical outcome.

Patterns Are Changing Among Couples

Women Give 2016 found that charitable decision-making styles by married couples have shifted over time. Women had some influence on giving decisions in an estimated 73% of pre-boomer young married couples in the 1970s. That influence has risen to 84% among Gen X and millennial young married couples in the 2000s. In addition, giving by Gen X and millennial married couples is higher than that of their pre-boomer counterparts when such decisions are influenced by the wife.

To better understand generational differences in charitable giving among couples, Women Give 2016 uses samples from two studies: the 1974 National Study of Philanthropy (NSP), the first comprehensive survey of American giving, and the Philanthropy Panel Study (PPS), which has been the authoritative survey data on charitable giving in the U.S. since 2001. The PPS is fielded every two years, and Women Give 2016 includes seven waves of the data. Both studies asked couples about each partner’s participation in charitable-giving decisions, but the NSP offered fewer response options. Here, a respondent could indicate that he (the man) made the decisions, he made some decisions with his wife or he and his wife made the decisions jointly. In addition to the NSP responses, PPS respondents can report that the woman in the couple makes the decisions or that the woman and the man make separate decisions. To allow for the comparisons between studies, Women Give 2016 mapped the different response options into two broad categories: men-only and women-involved. The expanded options in the PPS data are tangible evidence of the shifting trends in household decision-making, with the woman’s voice featured more prominently.

Why Shifting Patterns of Charitable Decision-Making Matter

It is well known that each generation is unique and has distinct characteristics. It is less clear how the current seismic shift between two outsized generations will affect philanthropy, but the evidence is mounting that women are key to growing charitable giving. As women increasingly step more fully into their philanthropy, the 21st century may truly become the “age of women in philanthropy.”

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1 Fry, R. Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Pew Research Center. 25 Apr 2016. Web. October 2016. Note that the generational cohort dates and size are from the Pew Research Center.
2 Wang, W., Parker, K., & Taylor, P. Breadwinner Moms. Pew Research Center. 29 May 2013. Web. October 2016.
3 Vespa, J., Lewis, J. M., & Kreider, R. M. America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012. U.S. Census Bureau. August 2013. Web. October 2016.; also see Mahapatra, L. (2013). Living alone: More US residents forming single-person households than before. International Business Times. 29 August 2013. Web. October 2016.
4 U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). Families and Living Arrangements. Table MS-2: Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1980 to the Present. U.S. Census Bureau. 30 October 2014. Web. October 2016. Note that data in this table is from 1970 and 2010.
5 Ibid.
6 Fry, R. (2016). For first time in modern era, living with parents edges out other living arrangements for 18- to 34-year-olds. Pew Research Center. 24 May 2016. Web. October 2016. Note that figures are percentages of 18- to 34-year-olds with the living arrangement of married or cohabiting in own household. As 1970 data is unavailable, 62.0% percent is the figure from 1960.
7 Wang, W. & Parker, K. Record share of Americans have never married. Pew Research Center. 24 September 2014. Web. October 2016.; Infoplease. Percent never married, 1970-2010, using U.S. Census Bureau data. 2015. Web. October 2016.
8 Ibid.
9 Vespa et al.
10 Vespa et al.