Engaged as We Age: The New Mantra for Older Adults

Posted Wednesday, January 25th, 2012| Comments (8) rule

Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Director of Research
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 617.552.2860
Email: jamesjc@bc.edu<

“Keep busy and stay active.”

For many years, popular thinking about older adults has centered on this simple mantra. The most important thing retired adults can do, the thinking goes, is find ways to stay involved. Don’t just sit there—do something!

Perhaps this is in response to a time when later life was seen as a time of complete leisure or a time with little role definition, or few obligations to others. But is keeping busy enough? Perhaps not.

Recent observations at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work indicate that this focus on activity and involvement may be misguided. Activity is important, and certainly an improvement over the idea of retirement as a time to “sit on the porch,” but it’s not everything. For today’s generation of retirees, involvement is just the beginning. Increasingly, older adults are living and working in a way that demands a new mantra: it’s not just about staying involved as we age, but staying engaged.

As we know, growing old today is not what it used to be. Life expectancy has increased and older adults are healthier in many ways than previous generations were. For most of us, post-retirement is not merely a capstone stage of life, but a significant developmental period that will likely extend for many years. Consequentially, today’s older adults are not just looking for ways to kill time. They are working part-time and launching second careers; they are pursuing advanced training and education; and they are playing active roles in caregiving and raising their families. In all of these roles, older adults are doing much more than just finding ways to keep busy.

Recently, the Sloan Center on Aging and Work completed the first-ever study to examine engagement among older adults. The Life & Times in an Aging Society Study looked at three groups of adults: those under 50, ages 50 to 64, and 65 and over, measuring their levels of engagement in paid work, volunteering, caregiving, education and training. The study asked participants not only if they were involved in these endeavors, but whether they were engaged in them—if they were enthusiastic about them, dedicated to them and whether they could get completely absorbed in them as opposed to merely going through the motions. In three out of four categories—paid work, volunteering and education—the study found that adults over 50 are, on average, are more engaged than their peers under 50.

Most crucially, the study shows that this high level of engagement is directly linked to overall well-being among older adults. Those who reported being highly engaged in one of these activities also had significantly higher well-being scores than those who were relatively unengaged. Notably, those who reported being merely involved, but not engaged in these activities, had well-being scores no higher than those who were uninvolved. Involvement, it seems, is not the key to mental health in later life; engagement is. 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 older adults.

For policymakers, academics, employers and advocates, these findings represent a chance to change the way we think about aging. Today’s older adults have much to offer in terms of talent, energy and social contributions. Human development continues throughout the life span. Finding ways to reach this potential will have positive outcomes for both older adults and for society as a whole. Ensuring that this is achieved will require changes in the way that society makes opportunities for these endeavors available to older adults and a more nuanced understanding by all of us that older adults don’t just need to keep busy—we must engage as we age.

To learn more about Life & Times in an Aging Society Study, click here ».

8 responses to “Engaged as We Age: The New Mantra for Older Adults”

  1. I agree entirely. There is a huge difference between keeping busy and active and being passionate about a field of endeavour. The former may provide a reason to get up in the morning, but the latter makes one reluctant to pack up and go to bed at night.

    Engagement and having a passion for what we do is what leads to a glorious sense of being in the flow when one’s concentration is solely on the task in hand and age and other distractions just don’t matter. It is irrelevant whether this is associated with paid work or some other unpaid endeavor. The key is that it is “productive activity” that is meaningful, absorbing and fulfilling on an individual basis. Through this one can continue to learn and develop and see the world, if only fleetingly, with fresh eyes.

    One of the benefits of older age is that often one may have fewer external responsibilities getting in the way of achieving this state. For many, it can be the best and most-productive time of life.

  2. Mindy Fried says:

    Great post, Jackie! I’m looking forward to reading your study and using it in my class, Aging in Society, at Brandeis! Thanks. Mindy

  3. Helen Dennis says:

    Hi Jackie. Kudos on a great and useful study.
    The distinction between involvement and engagement post employment is an important one and is rarely asked. Your research is helpful in formulating some focus group questions we will be using with USC faculty and staff. The USC Emeriti Center is launching the pilot project focusing on the new life stage. Many thanks and regards, Helen

  4. Julie Norstrand says:


    You bring up an important distinction between active and engaged aging. We often overlook the two, but there is a critical difference, especially when looking at the very old. Very interesting read – thank you!

    Sincerely, Julie

  5. I agree entirely too. You bring up an important distinction between active and engaged aging. Engagement and having a passion for what we do is what leads to a glorious sense of being in the flow when one’s concentration is solely on the task in hand and age and other distractions just don’t matter.

  6. Eartha says:

    Extremely good post.Really thank you! Will read on…

  7. So for revitalizing communities and promoting successful aging is helping older adults find or Tapp the skills, knowledge, and experience to reinvent themselves, remain attached to their communities, and engage in civic life.