Your well-being is linked to engagement in work, caregiving, education & volunteering

Your well-being as you get older is linked to your active engagement in work, caregiving, education and volunteering

A new research study from the Sloan Centre on Aging & Work at Boston College contradicts the widespread notion that older adults tend to disengage from major societal obligations and responsibilities. The study instead finds that older Americans are highly engaged in such activities, and that their well-being is directly tied to the level of engagement in these areas.

The Life & Times in an Aging Society Study conducted by the Sloan Centre on Aging & Work measured levels of engagement in paid work, caregiving, education and training, and volunteering among three groups of adults: those under 50, ages 50 to 64, and 65 and over. Notably, the study is the first of its kind to look not only at involvement in these activities, but to also measure engagement—asking respondents whether they felt enthusiasm, dedication and absorption in these activities, as opposed to merely participation.

In three out of four categories—paid work, volunteering and education—the study found that adults over 50 are, on average, more engaged than their peers under 50. Only in the realm of caregiving did adults under 50 report higher levels of engagement. Furthermore, the study found that overall well-being among older adults appears to be considerably higher among those who are engaged in these activities. Older adults who reported being involved in one of these four activities, but not engaged, had well-being scores no higher than those who were uninvolved. Nevertheless, those reporting high or moderate levels of engagement also showed high levels of well-being. This difference was widest in the 65-and-older age group, suggesting that the quality of one’s experience with paid work, caregiving, education and volunteering may be particularly consequential for the well-being of people in later life.

“Growing old in the 21st century is not what it was in the 20th,” said Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Director of the Sloan Centre on Aging & Work at Boston College. “As life expectancy continues to increase, older adults are healthier and more active than in the past. Yet many people cling to a notion that older adults are disengaged. The results of this study show the opposite to be true.”

Critically, the study’s findings indicate that encouraging older adults to stay involved in activities is not enough to enhance their well-being. Instead, society must find ways for older adults to not only stay involved in crucial life activities, but to remain highly engaged in them.

Despite significant shifts in the hopes and opportunities associated with later adulthood, some people are stuck in an outdated way of thinking about this stage of life. They believe that older adults are a leisure class and that old age is a “roleless role.”Some researchers, for example, cling to the notion that as adults age, they disengage from their roles, obligations, responsibilities, and social systems in order to adapt to their inevitable “fading out.”

The new way of thinking, of course, holds that the “fading out” period arrives much later in life than it once did, and that older adults can take action to improve the quality of their lives. New expectations involve the achievement of “successful aging,” which requires adjustments that are known to reduce the risk of certain diseases, enhance mental health, and keep older adults actively engaged in the world.

While many important and meaningful activities are on the roster of possibilities for older adults today — for example, exercise, socializing with friends, traveling, and gardening — there may be good reason for practitioners, policy makers, and society in general to better understand and promote older adults’ participation in activities that not only have a personal benefit but that also have a direct or indirect social benefit—such as paid work, caregiving, volunteering, and education. The productive aging framework emphasizes the importance of involvement in such activities for the maintenance of health and vitality in later life as well as to support a sense of meaning, purpose, and value. When older adults invest themselves in such productive activities, they contribute to the economy, minimize the threat that a swelling population of elders poses to the sustainability of the Social Security and health care systems, and counterbalance distortions in the labour supply that create an economic burden on the young and middle-aged as the Baby Boom generation retires.

Like it or not, a new “normal” is being defined. If employers, policy makers, and social scientists want to help shape the future of aging, they must pay attention to changes that are in progress now.