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Sloan Center News

Older Workers More Engaged Than Younger Employees

25 February 2010—A colleague told me that last summer she got a flyer in her home mailbox from a group of older adults in the neighborhood who were having a cookout. When she got to the cookout on Saturday afternoon, she discovered that she was among the youngest people there; most guests were in the 50-65 years age range and newly retired professionals.

It turned out, the neighbors were organizing their own community to identify their own needs and to create social connections. They were identifying activities they could do together—start a walking group, take turns entertaining their peers, host informational discussions at the local library on topics they had engaged in during their careers. But they were also interested in engaging with younger generations, and there was talk about setting up a mentoring group at the local college.

Looked at through the lens of (pro)activity, this group was accomplishing something and they were clearly engaged with life. They were coalescing as a community, providing for future generations in terms of their stewardship.

But viewed through the lens of political life, were these community-level change agents just simply being self-indulgent?

Recently David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that we are living in an age of “reverse generativity.” Brooks writes that because of the increasing proportion of older adults in our society, older people (retirees) are now taking from the young. They are taking money, freedom, and opportunity. And the only way for the U.S. “to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change.” By demanding change in, among other things, the retirement age (and therefore working longer), older adults can make life better for their grandchildren.

And this isn’t just a U.S. problem—Australian policy makers are now proposing a “Productivity Agenda” to deal with the same demographic issue and to generate more tax income for the country. Their proposal: raise the retirement age, raise the tax rates, encourage workers to work longer, and reduce retiree benefits.

These perspectives could indicate a tide change regarding our expectations for the “third stage” of adulthood. Rather than retirement being a time of full time leisure (some would say a full time drain on public resources), we may be witnessing a redefinition—the social construction of new assumptions that older adults should continue to contribute what they can.

It is not enough to change the rules of the game of aging, however. We also need to create new opportunities so that it becomes both natural and easy for older adults who can remain engaged in meaningful activities, if they want to.

I think that few would object to an expansion of opportunities for older adults to continue to have roles as responsible and contributing members of society. But should we view this new norm as a punishment for becoming older? Are we coming to a point where we think that older adults who seek some supplemental resources or adjustments so that they can contribute are displaying a contagious strain of selfishness?

In the new future of generative aging, we will have to become comfortable that many older adults might require some resources and assistance that enable them to continue to contribute in meaningful ways to society, whether that is through paid work, unpaid work, or providing care to someone else. Is this so different than our productivity at other ages? It is not uncommon for young adults who are launching their careers to continue to seek guidance and financial assistance from their parents. Adults at midlife, who might be in the thick of raising children or also assuming increasing levels of responsibility at work, may seek assistance to help with the extraordinary demands that may emerge.

Wanting to be productive and seeking opportunities to give to the “greater good,” older adults enjoy helping to care for loved ones. Yet they might also need some assistance.

Life is funny that way. Give a little, get a little.