Deeply ingrained in American culture (and the cultures of many other countries) is the idea that being busy is a virtue. People tend to equate being busy with working hard and to equate working hard with success. Some form of this logic has probably driven most of us at one time or another to work harder than the tasks before us demand.
This emphasis on staying busy carries forward into retirement. According to the sociologist David J. Ekerdt, “There is a way that people talk about retirement that emphasizes the importance of being busy. Just as there is a work ethic that holds industriousness and self-reliance as virtues so, too, there is a ‘busy ethic’ for retirement that honors an active life. It represents people’s attempts to justify retirement in terms of their long-standing beliefs and values.”
Since Ekerdt’s article was published in 1986, the picture of retirement has changed. Increasing numbers of adults reaching the age of 65 can look forward to 10, 15, or even 20 more years of relatively healthy life. Many are looking without enthusiasm at the traditional options laid out for them and are deciding to take a rain check. Some discover that one of these options—a full exit from the workplace—is financially out of reach. Others who can afford to quit want something more from their retirement years than either sitting on the porch or finding things to do just to keep busy.
Both groups are coming up with some interesting alternatives to traditional retirement—options that emphasize the expression of one’s values and the opportunity for personal challenge and deep connection. Such a retirement path does not necessarily lead to the study of meditation in Nepal or bungee jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. It can also lead to something as simple as discovering and nurturing meaning and value in everyday activities. According to psychologist William A. Kahn, personal engagement represents “the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s ‘preferred self’” in ways that promote deep connections to one’s work (whatever form that might take, paid or unpaid) and to other people. Such engagement leads to active, full, and satisfying involvements rather than obligatory, passive, or emotionally anemic ones. We become personally engaged when we find that it is meaningful and safe to express our full selves and when we are psychologically ready to do so.
For older adults, personal engagement often develops organically, out of a lifelong interest that is recast in retirement, or by making small changes at work that allow for a deeper, richer experience.
A shift away from the traditional retirement ethic of staying busy to affirm instead the value of staying personally engaged signals an important change in American culture. As this shift gains momentum, can older adults teach the rest of us how to measure success in terms of the subjective quality of our experiences rather than whether we’ve checked everything off our to-do lists?
Christina Matz-Costa, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College