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The “Contributions” Of Older Adults

a conversation with jacquelyn b. james, director of research at the sloan center on aging & work

26 March 2010—In your opinion, do older adults "contribute" to society?

Yes, according to Jacquelyn James, Director of Research at the Center.

In fact, according to the Urban Institute, older adults contributed over $160 billion dollars to the gross national product in 2005. Of course, much of this work is in the form of caregiving and volunteer activities, but these are activities that would have to be paid for if they were not donated. So, many older individuals are engaged and contributing to society in meaningful ways.

What does it mean for older adults to "contribute?"

It must be said that older people do face constraints in terms of finding opportunities to engage in meaningful activities. These run the gamut from lack of perceived opportunities to outright discrimination. On top of that, some older people buy into negative stereotypes about age themselves and assume they should “disappear.” But, research shows that life without purpose or reason to get up each day is not healthy or enjoyable.

There is a lot we can do. First of all we need to ask older adults: how might you live your life differently if you thought you were going to live to be 100? Most people really stop and think when asked this question. They also begin to suggest that they might engage in activities that take more time—like taking a course or training for a new skill. The onus then is on society, all of us, to create the opportunity structure to make those things possible and attractive—things such as opening up community colleges to older adults, creating partnerships with colleges and universities. As Robert Bella has said, we have to create opportunities that are both challenging and fulfilling.

In general, do people believe that older adults are still developing and productive later in life?

No, not by a long shot. Consider the images of older people on television, and all the commercials for products that prevent wrinkles, sagging skin, and other “age-defying” products. Consider what we know to be true of perceptions of older people (that they are slow to learn, stuck in their ways, out of touch), and how there is sheer dread of getting older—I do not think, people view later life as a time of development.

It is, though! Learning and development can occur at any point in the life cycle. There are those who are publicly driving this point home. People like Mark Freedman are showing there is potential for new vitality in the second half of life through civic engagement or encore careers, for example. Some organizations are recruiting senior retirees to do time-limited projects. In fact, our definitions of the ‘young old’ and ‘old old’ are actually shifting; 'young old' has moved up from 60-75 to 65-80 years.

How does life during the working years differ from the retirement years?

In the past, retirement has meant the end of paid work. Today, however, some people continue work; some get active in volunteer work or caregiving; many say they are as busy during the retirement years as they ever were when working. It is important to say that the habits of a good life start when we are young and hopefully develop over time. In a wonderful book A Long Bright Future. Laura Carstensen says that since we are living longer we need to spread our activities and role sets across a lifespan. For instance, when we are young parents, both mother and father might cut back on work so both partners can work, have time for family, and develop other hobbies or passions. As the kids move through school we might also might get involved in that area, or local politics, or religious life . Such purposeful activity will put us in good standing for retirement because we are likely to have developed relationships with others in our communities and have found activities we like doing, are committed to, and want to continue doing. Indeed most people in later life deepen or re-direct energies that have been developing (perhaps more slowly) during earlier life. Few people completely change who they are in retirement! While our relationship to work might change, our spouse, our children, our relationships usually stay the same. Many of our activities do too. Hopefully, we just have more time for them.

According to your research, what is your take on the notion of reverse-generativity?

The idea of “reverse generativity” is based on the notion that older adults are now taking from the young rather than contributing to their well-being. Others have referred to older adults as “greedy geezers,” another take on the same thought. It is based on the idea that all older people are dependent on younger people. This is just not true. In a recent book Aging Nation, James Schulz and Robert Binstock argue against the theory of a dependency ratio (or the notion that it takes "x" number of young people to support an older person). They claim that these calculations ignore the fact that there are plenty of younger people who are not working, and just as many older people who are working. In fact, if you take the proper factors into account, the difference in the amount of taxpayer money allocated to older people and young people is marginal. Thus, I worry that this reverse generativity idea is an argument that is part of a conservative agenda for people that generally don’t approve of social programs. While there is clearly room for older people who are living longer and feeling spry to give back in the ways that they can, there are a lot who are already. As I mentioned earlier, older adults contributed over $160 billion to the gnp in 2005.

What can the average person do to help change the thinking about older people and their place in society?

Like any other "ism", the more we are aware of what ageism entails or the negative stereotypes (“greedy geezer,” for example), the more we can check ourselves. I had to do that myself recently, when a clearly older doctor (in his 80s) came into the examining room to inject my spine. My reaction was to recoil, but I caught myself playing into the very stereotypes I study (the injection went fine and I got very good advice from the doctor). AARP helps negate our ageist stereotypes by putting interesting, attractive, sexy people on the cover of their magazines, while Mark Friedman showcases people who are enjoying life, feeling good, and giving back to society. The Sloan Center on Aging & Work is helping by studying Engaged as We Age and doing work that helps people from all social strata to be engaged while also helping employers understand that today’s older workers are different from those of the past, and are valuable. The Center is also writing a Call to Action Report that suggests things we can do, ways in which policy-makers, employers and researchers can all help.

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Jacquelyn B. James, a personality and developmental psychologist, is director of research at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work and research professor at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. Her research has focused on the meaning and experience of work, and adult development and aging. Her most recent publication, The Crown of Life: Dynamics of the Early Postretirement Period, details the opportunities and challenges inherent in the early retirement years for new retirees. She is also co-principal investigator of the Life & Times in an Aging Society Study, an investigation of engagement in later life, at the center. Dr. James is past-president of the Society for the Study of Human Development and serves on the editorial board of the society’s flagship journal, Research in Human Development.