The Meanings of Work for Older Workers

By Smyer, Michael A.; Pitt-Catsouphes, Marcie | Generations, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Meanings of Work for Older Workers


Smyer, Michael A., Pitt-Catsouphes, Marcie, Generations


Gerontologists have studied die meanings of work for older workers for more than half a century (e.g., Friedmann and Havighurst, 1954; AItschuler, 2004; Drenth, 1991; Gill, 1999). Widi die domestic and global aging of the labor force, employers, policy makers, and of course older workers themselves are focusing new attention on diis important arena.

Several elements influence die meanings of work: die basic psychological processes of aging; die cohort or generation of die worker; the ecology of die work itself, its pushes and pulls; and the larger social context of managing the risks of aging. We start widi a discussion of the meaning of work across die lifespan, and dien review each of diese elements to describe die meanings of work for older workers. Although there is no universally accepted definition of the "older worker" (Pitt-Catsouphes and Smyer, 2005; Hardy, 2006), we will focus on adults 50 years of age and older.

In diis article, we summarize data from multiple sources to answer several related questions: Why do older workers continue to work? How do older workers' meanings of work vary by financial, health, job satisfaction, familial, or workplace concerns? What are die implications of these findings for employers and employees? Although we consider the monetary reasons for working, the focus of diis article is the nonmonetary aspects of the meanings of work.

AGING AND WORK IN CONTEXT: A FRAMEWORK

Over the years, many scholars have pointed out the links between individual aging and die meaning of work (e.g., Sarason, 1977)· In many cases, young people implicitly and explicitly envision their careers or work lives and the meaning work has ibr diem and dieir own aging.

As one ages, work and career plans also subtlv shift from a goal orientation to a focus on die amount of time left at work. For most people, diis is of course part of a larger process of shifting a sense of personal and work-related time from how much time lias passed to how much time is left (Carstcnsen, 2006). At the same time, mid-career and late-career workers may be responding to their own sense of changes (both gains and declines) in dieir physical capacities, cognitive and emotional functioning, and social roles (Sterns and Huyck, 2001; Hedge, Borman, and Lammlein, 2006). This shifting sense of time also affects die meaning attached to work for young, middle-aged, and older workers.

But the career plans and meanings of work do not develop in a vacuum. Some sociologists have focused on the influence of the "triple helix" of occupation, family, and leisure on career development and the meanings of work across the lifespan (Rapoport and Rapoport, 1980; White, 1995). Odiers have suggested that there are "three boxes of life": education, work, and leisure (Riley, Kahn, and Foner, 1994; Achenbaum and Cole, in press; Hudson, in press). Through much of the twentieth century, people have engaged in die activities related to these aspects of dieir lives in a more or less linear fashion. Education occurred at the outset of life; work carried one through midlife and into early old age; and leisure became synonymous with retirement. While this sequence has unfolded in a somewhat orderly fashion over the past fifty years, it no longer reflects die fluid nature of the life course in contemporary society. Women and men are engaging in education, work, and leisure at different points (and often simultaneously) across die lifespan, and responding to family and cither demands in various ways.

This fluidity has blurred the lines between work and retirement for older workers. A recent survey found that approximately 80 percent of baby boomers anticipated working past the traditional retirement age, at least part time (Harris Interactive, 2005). A recent analysis of data from the Health and Retirement Study (hrs) confirms that a majority of older Americans with career jobs retire gradually, in stages, using "bridge jobs" or working less than full time (Cahill, Giandrea, and Quinn, 2006). …

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