March/April 2009

Meaningful Work in Later Life
By Janet M. Hively, PhD
Aging Well
Vol. 2 No. 2

Recently, I listened as Kendall, a 65-year-old retiree, lamented, “Work was my life, and now I have no life.” For Kendall, the career that had structured so many of his waking hours had created his identity. His sense of worth had been wrapped up in his role as the family wage earner. He had little interest in hobbies or volunteering. At the end of our brief conversation, he described his prediction for the future: “I expect that it will all be downhill from here.”

Kendall’s negative expectations about the future are not uncommon. They have been shaped by ageism, sexism, and our market-based economy’s bias about what constitutes work. His expectations don’t match up with 21st-century reality. Positive, productive aging is more the norm than the exception, and we have the capacity to accomplish meaningful work throughout life, in spite of disabilities. The tragedy is that Kendall’s negative attitude is shortening his life, based on the research finding that people with negative attitudes about aging tend to die an average of 7.5 years earlier than those with positive attitudes about aging.

The contemporary challenge for older adults facing the prospects of successful aging lies in developing community support to engage their interests, skills, and enthusiasm through meaningful work, whether paid or unpaid.

The Meaning of Work          
In this market-based society, we consider work as something people are paid for, so retirement puts an end to work. Unpaid activities such as parenting, volunteering, and caregiving are not considered work and, therefore, are not valued.            

It’s ironic because it can be argued that activities contributing social and economic value to the community without cost may actually be more valuable than services we pay for. For example, unpaid family caregivers help more than 90% of older adults who require assistance with daily activities. The estimated economic value of informal caregivers’ contributions ($350 billion in 2006) exceeded total Medicaid spending for both healthcare and long-term care ($299 billion).

In reality, all of the following kinds of work contribute social and economic value to the community: employment, education, volunteering, parenting, and caregiving. Work is simply productive activity that benefits older adults and/or their families, their employers, or their communities—whether paid or unpaid.

Women’s Work
Kendall’s gender affected his attitude about aging. Men have been more likely than women to think about retirement as the end of life. The bias that so strongly favors paid work belittles the value of what traditionally has been called women’s work, even though unpaid women’s work, such as parenting, caregiving, and volunteering, is essential for maintaining and renewing our society.

My feminist bias might influence my suggestion that one major reason women live longer than men is because they are better prepared for positive and productive aging. Like me, many women in their 60s and 70s have moved from employment after college to homemaking and parenting and volunteering. Later, supported by public policies designed to combat sexism in higher education and the workplace, we were welcomed by graduate schools and employers to start or renew careers. Our male peers moved up the career ladder faster and farther and longer but experienced neither the range of unpaid work nor the need for adaptive flexibility that inform vocational choices for creative and productive aging.

Ageist Expectations
Ageist attitudes about the potential for productivity in later life also shaped Kendall’s expectations for aging. Until the late 20th century, the process of aging was one of unalterable decline. The older we are, the more likely it is that we are holding on to the traditional expectations for decline that fit the time when we were growing up. 

To see age bias, we need look no further than the U.S. Census Bureau, where everyone under the age of 16 and over the age of 65 is considered a dependent. That definition is based on an assumption that people over the age of 65 will not earn money and pay taxes and will therefore be dependent on younger generations. Needless to say, the Census Bureau’s chart predicts rapid expansion of dependency with the aging of the baby boomers during the coming decades.

The reality, of course, is that medical breakthroughs and improved nutrition have added 20 good years to the middle of life. Three fourths of older adults describe themselves as healthy and active into their 80s. And only the fact that they collect Social Security might fit with dependency.

Productive Aging, Not Busyness
When we look beyond sexism and ageism and inventory the unpaid and paid activities of older adults, we find remarkable productivity. This is particularly true in rural areas. As younger generations have moved away, the older adults who remain in rural communities are doing the work necessary to help themselves and each other. It’s not unusual to meet county commissioners and grocery store owners in their late 80s. They have to keep going to keep their communities alive.

My knowledge about productive aging in rural communities stems from a 2000 survey of 55 to 84 year olds I conducted in four rural Minnesota counties. Four major endeavors occupied their time:

• Volunteering: Sixty-one percent were volunteering, most of them serving other older adults through a church or synagogue.

• Child care: Forty-six percent were caring for their grandchildren, primarily essential care for the parents who were commuting long miles because farm income was insufficient to support the family.

• Caregiving: Thirty-nine percent were caring for sick or disabled family members, friends, or neighbors.

• Employment: Forty percent were employed, including 26% of those aged 65 to 74 and 7% of those aged 75 to 84.

More than one half those productive people said they felt more responsible for helping others as the years have passed, because they “see the needs and have more time to do something about them.” An overwhelming 90% said they felt they were in charge of their lives, and 92% said they were very or mostly satisfied with their lives.

What Is Meaningful About Work?  
We tend to see our work as meaningful when we apply our skills in a focused effort to produce what we perceive as beneficial results. I have asked many older adults about what they are doing when they feel the “flow of upbeat energy” related to doing meaningful work. Here are a few of their responses:

• learning;

• working with a group to achieve a goal;

• feeling connected;

• solving a problem;

• creating something;

• making a difference; and

• feeling needed.

There has been some consistency in the answers. Although what is meaningful is subject to personal perspectives, the process of achieving meaning:

• requires focused effort (i.e., mindfulness);

• produces results;

• attracts acknowledgement, approval, and often gratitude;

• matches up with the passions and skills of the worker; and

• stimulates learning.

New brain research reinforces the potential for meaningful work, paid or unpaid, through the last breath. As reported by psychiatrist and gerontologist Gene Cohen, MD, brain cells regenerate throughout life—if they are used. “Even though we have billions of brain cells, nothing will happen until the light is turned on,” he notes.

The Life Planning Challenge
How can we make sure that the light is turned on? We know that retirees engaged in productive activities are healthier and more satisfied with their retirement unless they are involved exclusively with caregiving. People who are doing meaningful work are benefiting both themselves and their communities. It’s time for us to create new expectations that foster personal growth through meaningful work all the way through life.

The threefold challenge includes developing new norms and attitudes by raising awareness of older adults’ strengths and capacities; creating new opportunities for older adults to share their strengths through flexible, meaningful, paid and unpaid work that is valued by communities and employers; and maintaining the infrastructure to cultivate and support productive aging, such as healthcare, lifelong learning, accessible transportation, and technology.

There are a number of routes to address the challenge, such as reporting on research, changing policies and practices, and developing partnerships that cut across sectors, generations, disciplines, and cultures.

Just as boomers have transformed everything else along their way, they’ve begun to transform expectations for aging. More than two thirds already say they expect to remain employed past traditional retirement age—for fulfillment and challenge, as well as for income. The expected talent shortage, plus changing economic conditions, raise the likelihood of continued employment. Expanded promotion of volunteer service involving stipends for older adults will benefit both retirees and nonprofits with tight budgets.

Members of the Life Planning Network are developing replicable third age planning programs that fit the developmental stages of later life and incorporate meaningful work. The following are examples:

• Midlife Reevaluation (aged 40 to 65) includes coaching, peer support programs, midternships, and education/planning for workforce transition.

• Third Age Liberation, Creative Expression (aged 55 to 75) includes learning circles to explore opportunities, artists leading creative arts programs for/with older adults, and planning for encore careers.

• Summing Up, Late Life Encore (aged 65 to 85) includes life review and personal growth planning considering daily responsibilities in residential care.

Each of us has a role to play in transforming expectations for aging and cultivating meaningful work. As parents and grandparents, children and caregivers, employers and employees, citizens and volunteers, we all can start by valuing and honoring the encore work of older adults.

— Janet M. Hively, PhD, is a social entrepreneur who has cofounded three organizations since retiring in 2000 from the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development: the Vital Aging Network, the Minnesota Creative Arts and Aging Network, and SHiFT.