Skip to main content

Center Publication

Insights on Activity in Later Life from the Life & Times in an Aging Society Study—Engaged as We Age

older adults’ well-being tied to active engagement in paid work, caregiving, education and volunteering

by Jacquelyn B. James, Elyssa Besen, Christina Matz-Costa, and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes

January 2012—A new research study from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College contradicts the widespread notion that older adults tend to disengage from major societal obligations and responsibilities. The study instead finds that older Americans are highly engaged in such activities, and that their well-being is directly tied to the level of engagement in these areas.

The Life & Times in an Aging Society Study conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work measured levels of engagement in paid work, caregiving, education and training, and volunteering among three groups of adults: those under 50, ages 50 to 64, and 65 and over. Notably, the study is the first of its kind to look not only at involvement in these activities, but to also measure engagement—asking respondents whether they felt enthusiasm, dedication and absorption in these activities, as opposed to merely participation.

In three out of four categories—paid work, volunteering and education—the study found that adults over 50 are, on average, more engaged than their peers under 50. Only in the realm of caregiving did adults under 50 report higher levels of engagement. Furthermore, the study found that overall well-being among older adults appears to be considerably higher among those who are engaged in these activities. Older adults who reported being involved in one of these four activities, but not engaged, had well-being scores no higher than those who were uninvolved. Nevertheless, those reporting high or moderate levels of engagement also showed high levels of well-being. This difference was widest in the 65-and-older age group, suggesting that the quality of one’s experience with paid work, caregiving, education and volunteering may be particularly consequential for the well-being of people in later life.

“Growing old in the 21st century is not what it was in the 20th,” said Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. “As life expectancy continues to increase, older adults are healthier and more active than in the past. Yet many people cling to a notion that older adults are disengaged. The results of this study show the opposite to be true.”

Critically, the study’s findings indicate that encouraging older adults to stay involved in activities is not enough to enhance their well-being. Instead, society must find ways for older adults to not only stay involved in crucial life activities, but to remain highly engaged in them.

about the life & times in and aging society study

The Sloan Center on Aging & Work addressed questions about involvement and engagement in later life in its Life & Times in an Aging Society Study. Participants were recruited through electronic newsletters announcing the conference “Spirituality in the Second Half of Life,” held at Boston College in April 2010. These newsletters contained a link to a survey associated with the study and invited readers to respond, regardless of their plans to attend the conference. About 850 people completed the survey between January and April 2010. Seventy-six percent were female, 19 percent were retired, 64 percent were married or living with someone, 97 percent were white, 64 percent had a graduate degree, and 45 percent had a total household income of more than $100,000. The respondents ranged in age from 21 to 83.

» Download the publication: Insights on Activity in Later Life from the Life & Times in an Aging Society Study—Engaged as We Age
» About the Engaged as We Age Study
» View all Center publications
Follow the Sloan Center on Aging & Work link to twitterlink to facebook