Productive Aging

HVS-Rons View-Productive-Aging639x424Last month, The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan’s School of Public Health broached the topic, “The Aging Workforce: Challenges and Benefits for the Public’s Health.” During the discussion, panelists spent considerable time on the phrase productive aging, which essentially measures how retired Americans can continue to be socially, economically, and intellectually engaged participants in society. These contributions can be made through employment, voluntary work, elderly caregiving or education. Research reveals that those who are regularly involved in these activities have better physical and cognitive health, as well as a decline in age-related losses. 1

Surprisingly, the term isn’t exactly new. It was first coined in 1983 by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Robert Butler, who spent considerable energy challenging the widely held belief (of the time) that aging Americans were incapable of leading productive lives.   Butler wanted to focus on the “mobilization of the productive potential of elders of society.”

Thankfully, it does seem that America has turned the corner in viewing older adults as frail, immobile, and burdensome. One needs to look no further than our current crop of Presidential candidates – three of whom would be over 69 at their inauguration – as evidence. However, aging productively does not have to translate into an undertaking of that magnitude, nor does it require retirees to earn a lot of money to be considered valuable. Minimum-wage employment, volunteering in local organizations, and even becoming an elderly caregiver can all provide a sense of purpose and pride.

Forum panelists went on to discuss the many variables that can help maintain a healthy retirement lifestyle, which include maintaining a proper weight, exercising regularly, engaging the memory, and being productive, but they also spent some time discussing the financial repercussions of living a long and healthy life.

As we have been saying in the Update for some time, the vast majority of Americans are simply not putting enough away for retirement. The problem isn’t exclusively about savings, but also how most have limited understanding of how to make their assets last a lifetime. This may inevitably lead to generations working well into their later years not because they want to, but because they have to, which is certainly not the path to self-fulfillment.

In fact, there is abundant research indicating that retirees who engage in voluntary employment in retirement have much happier and fulfilling lives. According to a 2014 international study sponsored by The Brookings Institute, The University of Maryland, and IZA, World of Labor in Germany, workers who remained in the labor force past the retirement age (either in full-time work or in voluntary part-time arrangements) had higher levels of life satisfaction and well being than did their retired counterparts.

Working longer can also help maximize Social Security benefits, and delaying until age 70 can yield a 32% increase in annual Social Security income, which will assuredly help offset the rise in health-related expenditures that inevitably occur later in life.

It appears that the key to retirement happiness is not necessarily sipping umbrella drinks under a palm tree, but having the financial independence to pursue endeavors that are personally and socially rewarding.   Hopefully, all of my Update readers can find their own way of aging productively, but it starts with having a long-term financial plan that provides a solid retirement foundation. Just remember: “It’s not how old you are, but how you are old.” 5


1 “The Aging Workforce Challenges and Benefits for the Public’s Health.” The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Feb. 2016.

2 Butler, R. N., and Gleason, H. P. Productive Aging: Enhancing Vitality in Later Life. New York: Springer, 1985.

3 Caro, F. G.; Bass, S. A.; and Chen, Y.-P. “Introduction: Achieving a Productive Aging Society.” InAchieving a Productive Aging Society. Edited by S. A. Bass, F. G. Caro, and Y.-P. Chen. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1993. Pages 3–25.


5 Quote from French writer and philosopher, Jules Renard