Phyllis Moen, PhD

Phyllis Moen, PhD

Bloggers have had much to say lately about the difficulties of working women who are raising children and/or managing dual-career marriages, as well as those who are planning to marry or to have children. They’ve paid less attention to women in their 50s, 60s, and early 70s who are confronting work-family pressures, too—but of a different sort. This age-span has come to be defined as the encore years. These are bonus years of healthy life expectancy after the period of career- and family-building—a time when men and women can pursue meaningful engagement in often reduced forms of paid work or else in voluntary service. The concept of productive, active aging emphasizes the social value of ongoing public engagement in the encore years, embracing this age group as an untapped source of talented and motivated human capital that can be a key organizational resource, as well as a community resource for promoting the common good. How Americans spend their time during this life phase also matters for their health and well-being, because those who work or volunteer tend to be and remain in better mental and physical health than those who don’t.

Recently, Sarah M. Flood, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, and I examined the amount of time that contemporary Americans moving through their encore years allocate to paid work. In an article published this month in the journal Social Problems, we report that women are less apt than men to be working for pay across this age span and more likely to use the word “retired” to define themselves. When we broadened our scope to include any form of public engagement (paid work; volunteering; informally helping out), we found that men are still more apt to be engaged than women, and the percentages don’t match up until men and women are in their late 70s.

Why is this the case? One reason is that women experience poorer health, and health issues have been shown to push older workers out of the workforce. Women are more likely than men to experience involuntary retirement as a result of corporate layoffs or buyouts. Another key reason is women’s family caregiving responsibilities, which encourage women to lean out of full-time work and even exit the labor market altogether. Ms. Flood and I found that women who care for a nonresidential child or grandchild or for an infirm older adult are about half as likely to be engaged in paid work than women without these obligations. Women with children or grandchildren under the age of 18 in their homes also have lower odds of working—roughly one chance out of three—than women who are free of such responsibility. Being married generally decreases women’s engagement in and time allocated to paid work, whether their husbands are employed or not.

Charting the time allocations of women and men suggests that the encore life stage could become a new arena for gender inequality, in which women with caregiving obligations are selectively excluded from participating in public activities that society values. The bonus years of health and vitality producing an emerging encore life stage can promote public engagement only if women and men in this age group can find flexible jobs, openings for less-than-fulltime encores. Such opportunities have yet to be institutionalized and legitimized in either government or corporate policies and practices.

Our findings underscore this phase of the life course as a time of transition out of paid work—a transition occurring more quickly for women. Drawing on the American Time Use Survey, data collected by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, we show 86 percent of American men and 76 percent of American women between the ages 45 and 49 (pre-encore) are working for pay. Among those between the ages of 75 and 79 (post-encore), 83 percent of men and 95 percent of women are out of the workforce; moreover, 78 percent of men and 88 percent of women in their late 70s say they are retired. Advancing age is not the only source of pressure that keeps women at home during the encore years, however. The amount of time women can spend on activities in the sphere of public engagement depends on their ties to spouses, children and grandchildren, and infirm relatives, illuminating the family as a shaper of women’s experience throughout the life course.


Phyllis Moen, PhD
McKnight Presidential Chair in Sociology
University of Minnesota
Research Fellow
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College