Aging in America


UNIT 4 Productive Aging and the Environment ___________________________________________________________________________________

LESSON 4.2 Paid and Unpaid Work, Retirement & Leisure ______________________________________________

LEARNING OUTCOMES ________________________________________________________________________

In this lesson you will:

1. Examine your own expected progress through adult life and anticipate areas where you should be doing some planning now.

2. Review and critique an intergenerational program and discuss its structure, benefits for the generations involved, and feasibility for your own community.

STUDY NOTES ______________________________________________________________________________________


Productivity is a measure of the outcomes of paid or unpaid activities that can include

goods and services of benefit to society, or ability to meet personal needs. The range of

productive activities is wide, and we will consider a number of them in this lesson,

starting with what most would consider the most obviously productive activity, paid


Paid Employment

Picture a social function where people are milling around, each juggling a drink and a

plate of nibbles. The correct thing to do is to “circulate,” introduce yourself, and chat for

a moment with a series of total strangers. As you walk up to a pleasant looking young

man, what is the first and safest thing to say? After introducing yourself to him, isn’t the

natural question to ask is “What do you do?”

This little scenario helps to point out that what we do for work is important to our identity

and self-concept. What a person does for a living tends to describe a big chunk of their

public identity, and can color their entire life. It can affect how friends are met, their

choice of wardrobe, and the types of social activities they pursue. Work also influences

health and well-being by providing financial support, and perhaps by exposing us to

positive (a warm social climate) and negative (stress or other hazardous work exposures)


The process of entering and leaving the world of work includes events that start in early

adulthood and continue throughout most of our adult lives. Super (1980) proposes that

adulthood is divided into five stages that people move through as they age.

Implementation—Late teens to early 20’s when a series of temporary jobs teach basic

work skills & suggest career choices.

Establishment—From selection of a specific occupation through “moving up the

“occupational ladder” in one’s chosen career.

Maintenance—A period of transition as work efficiency is maximized and when family

and other roles partially replace focus on the work role.

Deceleration—Plans for retirement begin to be formulated.

Retirement—When full-time employment stops.

The path through these stages by any given individual involves refining and updating

expectations based on ongoing experiences. Changes in the level of job satisfaction

occur, usually in a cyclical pattern that is not related to age alone. A large body of

research on job satisfaction informs us of the following: 1) higher satisfaction tends to

increase with age—perhaps because people have either revised their expectations or

finally found the job they truly enjoy; 2) people who chose their type of work and like

what they do tend to stay with that work; 3) white-collar workers tend to experience

increasing job satisfaction with time, while blue-collar workers tend not to, and; 4) type

of job and other personal responsibilities outside of work that occur at different stages

can alter the relationship between age and job satisfaction (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-

Fields, 2006).

The life/work pattern suggested by Super is changing fast, however, because of factors

such as an increasing life-span and a dramatically morphing demographic picture in the

U.S. Expectations of moving through life in a straight line (linear pattern) are being

revised dramatically. At this point, we should be reminded that the linear pattern we have

become used to is a fairly new idea. In fact, futurist Ken Dychtwald (1999) describes

ways in which the traditional cyclical pattern is evolving into a much more flexible one,

including career changes during the middle and older years, planned “sabbaticals from

work” and continuing employment long after the “usual” time of retirement.

In three or four generations, we have gone from a time when many people didn’t live

long enough to plan for retirement at age 55, 62, or 65—and when most couldn’t afford

to do so—through years when chronological age was the determinant of (and sometimes

mandated) leaving work, into today’s world where there are strong incentives for older

workers to either stay on the job longer or find new jobs, perhaps even whole new

occupations, in their older years.

In our recent history, fixed benefit retirement plans, along with social security, funded the

transition from work to retirement. This was especially true for employees of large

corporations and blue-collar workers who were loyal union workers and whose work

involved hard physical labor. Interestingly, Social Security was first offered as an

incentive for older people to retire during the Great Depression of the 1920’s and 30’s, so

that jobs would be available for younger workers. How has our situation changed in the

70 years since its implementation?

For one thing, we can see that the number of younger workers available after the Baby

Boomers leave the workforce will probably be too small to fill available jobs. Also, much

of the hard physical labor related to manufacturing has either been dramatically changed

by technology or moved offshore through a global economy that exports heavy industry

to developing nations. Manufacturing jobs that remain require sophisticated technical

skills, and do not pay as well as similar jobs did in the past. American workers are now

needed to fill mostly knowledge-related and service occupations. Both of these require

more education and less muscle than the old list of job categories.

In addition, business practices have led to a virtual elimination of pensions for most

workers, and Social Security is predicted to run out of money in the next few decades if

not adjusted in some way. To summarize the situation that we are rapidly moving into:

jobs of the future will increasingly be done by available and healthy older workers, and

those workers will probably need the money they can earn through this work. As the

work force has more education, and white-collar are jobs more common, perhaps

increasing job-satisfaction will make the picture a pleasant one for most. This work force

must also be able to compete with those from other nations, as well, as even white-collar

and service jobs are being exported to developing nations. For example, some managed-

care health insurance companies are starting to pay for surgery done in countries like

India, and Chinese computer programmers are providing services for American


Let’s look at four generations of the Smith family to illustrate the changes we have seen

to date:

Bob Smith was born on a small family dairy farm, but left in 1962 to take a unionized job

building automobiles in Detroit. His father died 10 years later in a tractor accident at

age 70, leaving his mother in poor health, and with no recourse other than to sell the

farm (of course, since her husband was self-employed, there was no Social Security for

her, and the farm had been failing financially for a number of years—leaving more debt

than profit when sold). Bob’s mother moved in with him until her death several years


Bob worked at the automobile plant until his retirement at age 65 in 1987. A company

pension and Social Security supported him and his wife comfortably. Bob Jr., born in

1964, joined his father at the automobile plant after High School, but a lay-off related to

foreign competition led to loss of that job only three years later. After a long and difficult

job-search for another auto manufacturing job in this economically depressed industry,

Bob Jr. left to find work in Georgia. He eventually found a machine operator position in

a small metal fabrication plant at less than a third of the pay he got at the unionized auto

plant, and with few benefits.

By the time his son, Bob III was born in 1990, Bob Jr. realized that he had to upgrade his

skills to keep his job, and attended the local Junior College to learn new computer skills

he needed to move into a higher level job in metal fabrication design. Bob Jr. was now

convinced that there would be no company pension in his future, and soon began hearing

that even Social Security might be in trouble before he could collect it. With he and his

wife working full-time, there was still too little money, and it was almost impossible to

put anything by for retirement. Since they recognize how important education is for their

son’s future, they have now prioritized their savings into Bob III’s college fund. Now 20

years away from “retirement age”, with a son soon to be ready for college, Bob Jr. and

his wife can see that retirement at or near age 65 is unlikely for them.


While Super’s theory may still hold in describing Bob Jr.’s future work history, it will

probably be very different than what his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather

experienced. Time will tell how Bob III will do in his career, and what will motivate his


At this point, let’s back up and look at current patterns of retirement. Cavanaugh and

Blanchard-Fields (2006) summarize factors that are known to motivate retirement today:

Financial need and incentives—Ability to support oneself after retirement is critical,

but interestingly, many people who would continue working because they enjoy it will

retire if offered an “early-retirement” incentive. Individuals whose spouse has retirement

income adequate to support them both are also more likely to retire earlier.

Health and ability to function, and availability of health insurance—People with

health conditions that make it harder to work are more highly motivated to retire; this is

especially true of work with high levels of physical demands or that exposes workers to

significant levels of stress. The fact that retirees are three times more likely to be in poor

or fair health than those who are still working supports this observation (Kasl & Jones,


Gender and race—Given the experience of people who are at retirement age today,

women are more likely to be in the workforce at a given age than men are. This is

probably due to the fact that many women have dropped out of work to care for children

and family, so they stay in the work-force in order to fund retirement. The impact of

being a member of a minority group may have an even greater impact than gender,

however, since African American women, who are more likely to have worked all of

their adult lives, still retire later than white women due to economic reasons.

The characteristics of the job—Job satisfaction, commitment to the employer, and level

of education related to the work being done all color whether or not a person will decide

to retire, with higher level of satisfaction, higher commitment and higher educational

preparation all working against a retirement decision.

So, what makes retirement work? Successful (satisfying) retirement seems to depend

upon three major factors:

1. whether the retirement is a choice made by the worker;

2. good health status at the time of retirement;

3. financial security.

When these conditions are met, retirement is likely to be a very positive experience.

Portrayal of retirement as a crisis, and predictions that poor health or death will follow

on the heels of a decision to retire are untrue. In fact, leaving a job situation that is

stressful of otherwise undesirable will be a pleasant experience and would probably

improve health status further. Let’s examine how the belief that retirement leads to

illness and death came about.

Do you remember our discussion about cross-sectional studies? If I did a study of people

who were the same chronological age, and compared those who had retired and those

who had not, what would I find? The study would probably show that those who had

retired were in poorer health than those who had not (so many people retire for health

reasons that this makes sense). If I kept in touch with these people for a couple of years,

and then compared the proportion in each group who were still alive, what you think I

would find? My guess is that, because more of those who were still working are likely to

be healthy, that more of the retired workers would be dead. A bias in cross-sectional

research design (not controlling for health at the time of retirement) can lead us to believe

wrongly that retirement causes illness and dealth.

Dropping to part-time work, or changing to a more flexible type of job, is an increasingly

popular way to retire gradually. When we account for both part and full-time work, 18%

of men and 10% of women over the age of 65 are working (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).

This number is increasing since continued employment after Social Security eligibility

was encouraged by removal of the “earnings test” in 2000. Older workers seek a good fit

with the work environment as demonstrated by data that tell us that older workers tend

not to be in physically demanding jobs, and tend to be found in service-oriented jobs, or

those that require higher levels of education and training.

Planning for retirement can further influence its success. This planning could be thought

of as “anticipatory socialization” to the world of retirement. Some corporations provide

retirement seminars for their older employees by providing information about social,

financial, health and family-related factors that will aid in their transition from work.

Phased retirement is also facilitated by some employers but, unfortunately, usually only

for their higher-level employees where both employee and employer will benefit from

having the retiree around long enough to assist a replacement worker’s orientation to the

position being vacated by the retiree.


Age discrimination involves denying a job or a promotion to a person solely because of

age. Age discrimination is common throughout the world, and it starts at a relatively

young age. Because of this, employment prospects for middle-aged and older adults are

lower than they are for younger adults. Unfortunately, many middle-aged or older adults

who lose employment find that that loss is not temporary, because they cannot find other

work at the same level of challenge and salary. Thus, age discrimination often leads to

unemployment, underemployment, or early retirement for many.

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was first passed in 1967,

and has been amended several times since then. The Act states that only the ability to

perform a specific job can be considered when hiring, firing, or promoting a worker, and

gives workers over the age of 40 the right to legal recourse if they believe they have been

discriminated against due to age.

Although many workers who believe that they have been discriminated against because

of age do not take legal action, the perception of age discrimination is widespread.

During the year 2006, of the 16,548 claims of age discrimination filed, 19.8% ended with

resolution favorable to the person making the charge (EEOC, 2005). The low number of

claims may be due to this small proportion of positive outcomes for workers who do

engage in the process and the difficulties inherent in making and fighting to win an age

discrimination suit (Snyder & Barret, 1988). One of the reasons these suits are hard to

win is that there is little hard scientific research that clearly documents that age

differences do or do not impact upon satisfactory job performance. Courts work on hard

evidence and precedence from previous rulings, so this is not a good state of affairs. In

fact, when the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the Fourteenth

Amendment (guaranteeing people equal protection under the laws) protected people from

age discrimination, the Court ruled, on January 11, 2000, that there was no blanket

protection for older people, and that age can be used as a useful proxy to determine

qualifications for a job. Despite the ADEA’s protections, Cavanaugh and Blanchard-

Fields (2006) point out that age discrimination is still an ambiguous issue that remains

unresolved at this time.


Political Involvement

On the most basic level, older people vote and are involved in campaign work for

candidates for public office. Their political views do not change from being liberal to

conservative (as many would assume) as they age, and are not homogeneous, but stay

pretty constant for individuals throughout life. They are also about as involved in the

political process as the rest of the population. In fact, they mirror the rest of the

population in all but one factor—they are more apt to vote than any other age group.

Furthermore, the proportion of older adults who have voted in the most recent election

years has been going up, while the proportion of those voting from other age groups has

been decreasing. Since they are not homogeneous in their loyalty to any political

perspective, this would seemingly not lead to their running the country, but, if a common

issue arises that stimulates more political activity in this group, who knows?

A large proportion of older adults also actively participate in advocacy groups. Advocacy

for the entire group of aging Americans usually involves political activity carried out

through membership in an organization; the AARP (American Association for Retired

Persons) is probably the most visible example of such an organization seen today. Since

the older population represents a wide range of political ideologies and values, an

organization such as the AARP is challenged to maintain support from its constituency.

There is also conflict in such advocacy groups that has been created by tension between

some elders’ desire for generational equity, and the need for others to fight for

entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. How will the growing number of

older adults remain true to their investment in the younger generations represented by

their families, and still fight to maintain benefits to which they feel entitled? If not, there

could be lines drawn in the sand, and intergenerational warfare could result.

Also important is the fact that many holders of public office are in their senior years.

Some of the more widely recognized people who achieved longevity while serving in

office include Senator Claude Pepper and Senator Strom Thurman. Both of these

gentlemen, and many others, have had long and productive political careers, not only

serving as great examples—sometimes called “elder-heroes,” but actively advocating for

less fortunate older adults in their constituencies.

Membership in Voluntary Associations

Membership in and choice of associations is tied to social class and varies among

cultures, gender, and ethnic minority identification. Older African Americans hold more

memberships than do older whites or other groups and these are often in church-related

groups. Senior centers provide opportunities for activities, most of which focus on

socialization. Many of these centers also organize volunteer opportunities for their

members that allow them to experience new things, achieve something worthwhile, be

creative, and help others.

Volunteer work

Many “young-old” adults volunteer to assist older members of the community, while a

significant number of the “old-old” also give thousands of hours a year to their chosen

causes. Rates of community involvement and volunteer activities are highest among those

with higher education, better health, more leisure time, a lifetime history of volunteering

(this would be predicted by continuity theory), a broad range of interests, and a belief that

they can make valuable contributions (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2005).

Participation provides opportunities to engage in meaningful social roles, and provide the

community with experienced and reliable workers at no cost. A number of national,

regional, and local organizations benefit from these volunteers, as does the community as

a whole. .


Leisure activities can range in area of interest from cultural, to social, to solitary. On

another dimension, these activities vary in degree of intensity from participation in

competitive sports to taking a nap. The benefits of leisure seem to come from the

satisfaction derived from it, and even solitary activities promote health and longevity in

later older age (Menec, 2003). We choose by virtue of how well we think we can do

them, and our level of psychological comfort with the activity. Of course, the physical

capability to carry out a leisure activity and availability of the resources to do so are

important factors as well. It is also possible (as role theory tells us) that people are age-

graded into certain types of leisure activities by society. People tend to participate in a

broader range of activities in youth than they do in old age, with advancing age often

dictating adoption of more sedentary activities, but there is a remarkable stability over

time in people’s leisure interests. Older adults are not necessarily sedentary, and it is not

uncommon to find groups such as senior ski clubs. While the incentive of reduced or free

skiing may lure some, I am sure that most of these senior skiers are there because they are

continuing a life-long enjoyable hobby.

Productivity Across Generations

Productivity includes paid or unpaid activities that provide goods and services of benefit

to society, and also efforts to provide for personal needs. We have seen in this lesson that,

despite a persisting myth that old means dependent and non-productive, it is clear that

older adults are productive, and even the most frail have contributions to make to society.

Many, if not most, make significant contributions to community and family, and these

contributions are increasing rapidly as the number and health status of older adults

improves. Remember that, although adult children and friends may provide for the well-

being of older people, the older adults themselves often provide care for ill or frail family

members including spouses, children, and grandchildren. At the very least, the majority

of older adults provides for their own income, maintains homes for themselves and

others, and is capable of independently caring for their own activities of daily living.

Gerontologists use the term reciprocity to describe how aging adults fit into family,

community, and society, and how they engage in the interactive process of giving as well

as receiving assistance. Even those who need assistance with daily activities of living, or

financial help, can provide valued services to others in return. Indeed, the whole notion of

competence assumes two-way exchanges between individual and environment. We are

learning that opportunities to help others also can benefit the helper (of any age) and lead

to improved mental and physical health, and increased levels of self-concept.

Recognition of the need to develop give and take between the generations has led to the

development of community intergenerational programs. Many programs have been

designed for this purpose, including one where homebound older adults telephone

latchkey children (whose parents cannot be home when the children return from school)

to be sure that they have arrived home safely, and to discuss how school went that day.

Another program that has been around for many years links older adults, as foster

grandparents, with institutionalized children who have serious chronic illnesses. Foster

grandparents act as advocates for the children, and provide personal care, comfort, and

the cuddling that is so badly needed for children institutionalized in understaffed

facilities. In both of these examples, older participants experience the satisfaction if being

able to help, the ability to use their many talents and experience in child-care, and some

relief from their own loneliness. The children involved get the care and attention they

need to grow and prosper. Even outside of the family and neighborhood, it is easy to find

great examples of reciprocity among generations!