Busy Bees or Purpose Seekers?

Posted Wednesday, June 13th, 2012| Comments (5) rule
Older adults’ search for meaning in the retirement years
Christina Matz-Costa, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College
Phone: 617.552.1634
Email: matzch@bc.edu

Deeply ingrained in American culture (and the cultures of many other countries) is the idea that being busy is a virtue. People tend to equate being busy with working hard and to equate working hard with success. Some form of this logic has probably driven most of us at one time or another to work harder than the tasks before us demand.

This emphasis on staying busy carries forward into retirement. According to the sociologist David J. Ekerdt, “There is a way that people talk about retirement that emphasizes the importance of being busy. Just as there is a work ethic that holds industriousness and self-reliance as virtues so, too, there is a ‘busy ethic’ for retirement that honors an active life. It represents people’s attempts to justify retirement in terms of their long-standing beliefs and values.”

Since Ekerdt’s article was published in 1986, the picture of retirement has changed. Increasing numbers of adults reaching the age of 65 can look forward to 10, 15, or even 20 more years of relatively healthy life. Many are looking without enthusiasm at the traditional options laid out for them and are deciding to take a rain check. Some discover that one of these options—a full exit from the workplace—is financially out of reach. Others who can afford to quit want something more from their retirement years than either sitting on the porch or finding things to do just to keep busy.

Both groups are coming up with some interesting alternatives to traditional retirement—options that emphasize the expression of one’s values and the opportunity for personal challenge and deep connection. Such a retirement path does not necessarily lead to the study of meditation in Nepal or bungee jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. It can also lead to something as simple as discovering and nurturing meaning and value in everyday activities. According to psychologist William A. Kahn, personal engagement represents “the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s ‘preferred self’” in ways that promote deep connections to one’s work (whatever form that might take, paid or unpaid) and to other people. Such engagement leads to active, full, and satisfying involvements rather than obligatory, passive, or emotionally anemic ones. We become personally engaged when we find that it is meaningful and safe to express our full selves and when we are psychologically ready to do so.

For older adults, personal engagement often develops organically, out of a lifelong interest that is recast in retirement, or by making small changes at work that allow for a deeper, richer experience.

A shift away from the traditional retirement ethic of staying busy to affirm instead the value of staying personally engaged signals an important change in American culture. As this shift gains momentum, can older adults teach the rest of us how to measure success in terms of the subjective quality of our experiences rather than whether we’ve checked everything off our to-do lists?

» Learn about recent work on this topic as part of Engaged as We Age, a project of Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work.


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5 responses to “Busy Bees or Purpose Seekers?”

  1. Peter Sarver says:

    I suspect that you drawn a false dichtomy for some of us past the 65 mark. I’m busier than ever exactly because I’ve gained greater freedom to pursue areas of higher interest. When I shifted from being a high paid human service exec a few years back, it wasn’t clear what would emerge for me. But the absence of a singular broad responsibility enabled me to patch together a variety of paid and unpaid positions of significance. The sum of my current parts now clearly exceeds the total time that I had perceived was available for “work” [meaningful activity]. And I still have plenty of time left over for play and down-time.

  2. Larry says:

    I’m just into retirement too. It’s true that I started with the belief that I had to stay busy doing more or less what I did when I was fully employed. But I gradually realized that I had choices and could refuse to do something or some project because I didn’t feel like doing it any more. Now I’m pondering, seaching, investigating those things I want to do that satisfy that “subjective quality” which I’m trying to concurrently identify. I’m confused.

  3. Jay Bloom says:

    Anyone can be busy but what is important is what one is busy about. I believe that unless you are engaged in your later years you are just dying longer not living longer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the growing importance of any kind of work for older adults.

    I coined the word returnment as one pathway which is the concept of giving back or returning in some small way what the world has given you especially as an alternative to retirement.

  4. Retirement can be a scary thing, but as this post suggests, it doesn’t mean that you would have to stop doing everything you normally do. Instead it’s a chance to explore and deeply engage with what you set out to do, which is not completely possible during the working years. Great post. We provide a comfortable way of living that permits the freedom to do anything, which comes with retirement.

  5. StephanieFenwick says:

    I agree with Kahn’s expressions regarding the “preferred self” as a way to connect deeply with work and others. Personally, I believe that if we are learning through life to discern and focus on living from a space of our unique giftedness, this ethos will carry over into the older phases of our lives. You mention Western culture at the start of your post, and I think the caution for people of any age is to not get caught up in the idea that our identity rests with what we do, have, or what people say about us (Henri Nouwen), but rather our deeply loved self that can use personal giftedness and resources to give back out to the community and the world.