Academic journal article Generations

The Effects of Civic Engagement of Current and Future Cohorts of Older Adults

Academic journal article Generations

The Effects of Civic Engagement of Current and Future Cohorts of Older Adults

Article excerpt

Consideration of the phenomenon under other labels is not new in aging.

History and demography compel us to place older Americans at the heart of discussions about civic engagement. The current generation of elders has shown that it comprises active citizens whose commitment to civic life- strengthened by events or circumstances of their young adult years- has served as a vital resource for communities. What about approaching cohorts? Will their civic engagement equal that of the "Greatest Generation"? Some speculate that this is unlikely (Samuel and Sanders, 1991). Others assert that, given their collective history of testing social norms, and sheer numbers, the baby boomers in particular will redefine the conventional wisdom of how we are to behave in later life and seek avenues for greater participation in civic life (Freedman, 1999).

We know that the baby boomers express a strong desire to remain actively involved in their communities (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 1999; 2002). Concurrent improvements in health, longevity, and education mean that this generation will be well-positioned to fulfill those expectations. It is less clear how civic engagement by current and future older adults " will affect those individuals, their communities, and the broader culture and society.

The purpose of this article is not to join the fray over how best to define civic engagement, or to settle long-standing questions about why individuals undertake civic activity. Instead, we review what is known about the impact of civic engagement especially by engaged older adults. It is notable that little systematic research exists on civic engagement per se, in part because there is no consensus regarding the scope of actions that fit under this specific term. This examination relies on an inclusive view, as the label currently is referring to a broad array of political and social behaviors that affect communities direcdy or indirectly (Christiano, 1996; Wuthnow, 1991). While scholars only recently have taken the cue from advocates and begun to explore civic engagement as it relates to older adults, consideration of the phenomenon under other labels is not new in aging.


Nearly a half-century ago, disengagement theory emerged as the leading perspective on activity in the lives of older individuals (Cummings and Henry, 1961). This view held that individuals relinquish their claims to valued social roles as they age - in effect, disengaging from society. In turn, society disengages from the aging individual, and transfers those responsibilities to younger people. The net effects of this inevitable disengagement were assumed to be beneficial for the older person and for the society.

Although disengagement theory appeared to explain patterns of activity for some older adults, many notable scholar-advocates challenged the theory's propositions, asserting instead that prevailing stereotypes and biases prevented older individuals from retaining their status as "full people" and curtailed their involvement in valued, productive roles (Friedan, 1993). The noted geriatrician Robert Butler (1975) observed that society had created a "myth of unproductivity" surrounding individuals of advanced age to justify their exclusion. Others argued that marginalization was detrimental to both the individual and the broader culture and predicted that older adults would seek to remain "vitally involved" (Erikson, Erikson, and Kivnik, 1986).

Evidence to support these contentions is mounting rapidly. In the years since disengagement theory was proposed, research has revealed that many older individuals prefer to be engaged and that they benefit from engagement. Such findings have led to alternative views, such as continuity theory, activity theory, and the perspectives of successful and productive aging, which posit that engagement is beneficial to the individual and that the loss of valued roles and responsibilities can result in declines in well-being for older adults. …

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