Work & Purpose

After 55, the Key Is Staying ‘Engaged’

A new survey shows a common belief — that people become disengaged as they age — is flat-out wrong

We are living in a time when expectations for work and other productive activity are rapidly shifting for men and women over 50, and particularly for those over 55.

A recent study by the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, where I'm a senior research associate, found that 92 percent of people ages 55 to 64 — and 76 percent of respondents 65 or older — were involved with paid work, volunteering, caregiving or educational activities. But these older Americans are not just casually involved in these activities. They’re often actively engaged in them — especially when the opportunities support their sense of purpose, challenge and fulfillment. In fact, although many people cling to the notion that older adults are disengaged, the study shows the exact opposite to be true.

The Surprise About Older Americans
By engaged, I mean truly enthusiastic and dedicated, and often completely absorbed in these activities. Our survey found that adults over 50, on average, are more engaged in paid work, volunteering and education than their peers under 50.
Even more important, the study discovered that this high level of engagement is directly linked to the overall well being of older adults. Those who reported being highly engaged in work, volunteering, caregiving or educational activities had significantly higher scores for life satisfaction and mental health than those who were relatively unengaged.
It turns out that being involved in activities is not the key to good mental health in later life; engagement is — especially for people 65 and older. There is a clear correlation between the level of someone's engagement and the degree of his or her mental health.
What Workplaces Must Do
Unfortunately, although many older adults see work as an important part of their identity and as a source of meaning, challenge and stimulation, not all workplaces understand this.
Some employers don’t make work environments hospitable to older adults or promote job opportunities for them. They don’t know how to deal with men and women in their 60s who want to stay connected to work, but not with the intensity they did when they were younger — perhaps by working fewer hours per week in retirement so they can be involved in other activities that also give their life meaning.
Two Forward-Thinking Employers
Some forward-thinking employers, on the other hand, have implemented innovative options in response to the changing needs and desires of their employees and retirees. 
Wells Fargo, for example, offers its baby boomer employees what’s called an On-Campus Master's Program in career development, intended to improve their organizational leadership abilities, as well as a Leadership Perspectives Course, to help them define short-term and long-term career goals and take steps to reach them.
Cornell University — where more than half of the staff and faculty is 45 or older — developed a suite of programs to meet the diverse lifestyles of its retirees while fostering a continuing relationship with the school. Called Encore Cornell, the suite includes Encore Hire, which links retirees, often remotely, to temporary employment opportunities inside Cornell; Encore On-Call, which lets retirees volunteer their expertise to members of the Cornell community; and Encore Volunteer, which connects retirees with local and national volunteer opportunities run through the university and local agencies.
Innovative programs like the ones offered by Wells Fargo and Cornell provide important opportunities that can have a positive impact on the well-being of people in this stage of life. At the same time, they capitalize on the expertise and talent of these companies' older employees and retirees. It's a win-win that more employers should consider.
Christina Matz-Costa, MSW, Ph.D.
By Christina Matz-Costa, MSW, Ph.D.
Christina Matz-Costa, MSW, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the older adults and families concentration of the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College and a Senior Research Associate at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. With Jacquelyn James, Ph.D., Matz-Costa leads the Engaged as We Age research team at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work.

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