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Age and the Meaning of Work

The Age and the Meaning of Work study reviews and summarizes existing literature on non-financial benefits that work offers older workers.

key research questions

  • To what extent is paid employment important to workers aged 40 and older? Why?
  • What experiences enhance the meaning of work?
  • What experiences detract from the meaning of work?

selected findings

  • In a sample of the HRS from 1994-2004 (n=26,882), most older workers report that they enjoy their work (89 percent). Hispanic respondents (especially women) are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to say they enjoy their work (93 percent vs. 88 percent). Of all occupation groups, the greatest percentage of health services workers (31 percent) say that they do not enjoy their work. In contrast, only 6 percent of members of the Armed Forces indicate that they do not enjoy their work.
  • In a sample of 3,504 older workers (ages 50 and over) from the 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce, 91 percent indicated that the work they do is meaningful to them. This perception did not vary by gender or by racial or ethnic background. It did vary somewhat by employment status: 97 percent of small business owners indicated that their work was meaningful to them, compared to 93 percent of self-employed and 90 percent of those employed by others.
  • In June, 2006, released an online survey of 400 workers ages 50 and over. They found several elements were important in assessing potential jobs: flexibility (69 percent rated this important); security and stability (67 percent); independence and autonomy (65 percent); service and dedication (58 percent); cash compensation (53 percent); benefits (48 percent); and pure challenge (46 percent).
  • Two focus groups – one with low- and middle-income individuals 40 years and older and seeking retraining for work, and one with middle- and upper-income older workers who are members of a community group focused on career planning during the “third age”-- reiterated many of these themes. When asked what they were looking for in work, they focused on making a contribution, keeping social connections, and being able to use their skills and experience. Even in the low income group, income and health benefits were mentioned only sparingly in the conversation.



Smyer, MA, Besen, E. & Pitt-Catsouphes, M. (2009). Boomers and the many meanings of work. In R. Hudson (ed.), Boomer Bust? The new political economy of aging (pgs 3-16). New York: Praeger.


For questions and more information about the Age & the Meaning of Work Study, or to schedule a conversation with any of the Center’s team, please contact:

617-552-9195 |


age and the meaning of work team

Elyssa Besen, PhD
Research Scientist
Center for Disability Research, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety 

Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Graduate School of Social Work & Caroll School of Management, Boston College
Michael Smyer, PhD
Bucknell University