Productive Aging

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In the formative years of gerontology as a field of study, considerable attention was paid to the frailties and limitations associated with the advancing years of older people. This attention to both the physical and psychosocial aspects of aging provided the essential foundation for an understanding of the challenges facing an aging society. Older adults were often viewed as a "deserving poor," worthy of public intervention after a lifetime of contributions. In the decade that followed the 1971 White House Conference on Aging, programs and services for older people experienced substantial expansion in their array of services and levels of funding. Perhaps no other single volume stirred the passion of the public in this regard more than the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Robert N. Butler, Why Survive? which chronicled the "tragedy" of growing old in America.

By 1980, the early years of growth in social programs for elderly Americans had slowed, and considerable effort went into maintaining those that had been developed during the previous two decades. While this was generally a time of social program retrenchment, many of the programs designed for elderly persons were left intact.

Perhaps as a reaction to the prevailing public perception that aging was synonymous with decline and disease, Robert Butler became concerned by the perception and misrepresentation that older people were less able to participate fully in society than their younger counterparts, and that they were a costly burden on a vital nation. Butler introduced the term productive aging at the 1983 Salzberg Seminar in an attempt to reflect a more balanced view of the capabilities and potential of older people. According to Butler, "Many people express concern about the costs and dependency of old age. . .I wanted to stress the mobilization of the productive potential of the elders of society" (Butler and Gleason, 1985, p. xii).

While the contemporary aging network remains composed primarily of professionals focused on the problems associated with growing old, the field has made strides to examine the normative aspects of aging and the positive contributions of older adults in modern society. Better balance has been given to the significant contributions of older people in terms of volunteering, helping with children and grandchildren, assisting friends and family who are sick, and professional achievements through work and hobbies. Begun as a broad concept to counter the negative images associated with being old, the term productive aging came into wider use in the 1990s, and along with its wider use came efforts to better define the term.


In 1993, Caro, Bass, and Chen defined productive aging to be "any activity by an older individual that contributes to producing goods or services, or develops the capacity to produce them (whether or not the individual is paid for this activity)." Research by Caro and Bass (1995), conducted under the auspices of The Commonwealth Fund's Americans Over 55 at Work Program, sought to measure the extent of participation by Americans age fifty-five and older who were engaged in work, caregiving of grandchildren or great-grandchildren, caring for sick friends or relatives, and educational training associated with career preparation. Kevin A. Coleman (1995) developed a conservative economic estimate of the cost to replace the value of these specific contributions of older peopleit was well over $121 billion dollars.

Alternatives to the above definition have also been proposed. For the most part, the literature reveals consistent agreement among authors that the term include activities that can be measured and that have some direct or indirect economic value. However, there is some disagreement regarding the breadth of activities to be included in the definition. For example, Herzog et al. (1989) includes doing housework as part of the definition. Housework is also included under the rubric of productive aging in John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn's study on successful aging (1998).

Some controversy

Using an econometric word such as productive in association with aging has also raised some controversy in the gerontology scholarly community. Critics have asked whether this means that a person who is not contributing in an economically measurable manner is "unproductive?" (Holstein, 1992). In the activities cited as part of productive aging, for example, personal enrichment is not included. Meditation, religious reflection, personal growth, reminiscence, physical exercise and sports, entertainment, and education for expressive purposes are all outside the definition of productive aging, though these are important activities undertaken by many older individuals.

The response by proponents of productive aging has been that there are many activities undertaken by older people that are of great value to older people, as well as to society. Aging productively does not negate these valuable and important activities. Personal enrichment and growth is part of an individual's struggle to find meaning in life. Further, productive aging, while valuable, does not, nor does it intend to, represent the ultimate aspiration of the aging experience. Productive aging is not intended to be an idealized form of aging.

Of concern to many advocates for older adults, however, is that for those elders who choose to engage in productive aging, there is an uneven playing field where older people encounter specific prejudices, cultural traditions, and genuine barriers. They argue that this is unfair, counterintuitive, and discriminatory, and that it needs to be remedied. A society in which older individuals may contribute without facing ageism is indeed a goal worth struggling for.

Variables that influence productive aging

There are at least four distinct categories of variables that influence the productive engagement of older people: environmental variables, situational variables, individual variables, and social policy (Bass and Czso, 2001). The environmental variables that influence individual productive participation include the general state of the economy, the norms within a distinct culture or subculture, larger world events (such as war), political developments, demographic changes, and cohort membership. These variables are largely outside the control of the individual, but, in some respects, they can be influenced by social policy. It is less likely, for example, for an older person to find employment in an economic recession than in a time of low unemployment.

Situational variables include prescribed roles, obligations and responsibilities, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, organizational circumstances, traditions, community context, and health. For the most part, an individual has little choice over situational variables; they are part of the individual's milieu. The way in which these circumstances are configured, however, can create either constraints or opportunities for productive aging.

Individual variables are those that are most frequently discussed when examining productive outcomes. These variables include motivation, drive, creativity, attitude, aptitude, habits, gender, race, ethnicity, physical features, and genetic profile. While there is often room for adjustment of individual variables, some variables are inherited and cannot be changed. Individualized variables can influence one's interest in productive participation.

Finally, and perhaps least considered in its influence, is social policy. Social policy determines government and employer policies, pension policy, organizational rules, taxation regulations, priorities, and public and private programs.

Impingement from any one of these four categories can limit the extent to which a person chooses to participate in a productive aging activity. Alternatively, an incentive or encouragement from any of these variables, particularly from social policy, can encourage greater participation. It is here where economists, policymakers, and planners have begun to consider ways in which policies can remove barriers and provide incentives to encourage those who choose to participate in some form of productive activity.

Policy considerations

Through the efforts of The Commonwealth Fund and other allied research efforts, it is possible to quantify the scope of the daily contributions that older adults provide to their employers, families, and communities. But, as many elders point out, they face constant barriers in their desire to remain in the mainstream of activity. Age discrimination in employment continues to be a part of everyday life. Colleges and universities remain focused on developing programs to attract young people and are less interested in attracting older adults interested in retraining; vestiges of depression-era policies designed to encourage the retirement of older people to make room for younger workers remain in practice; incentives exist to encourage older people to remove themselves from significant roles; and social and economic disincentives frequently confront those who want to remain economic contributors. These are the policies and practices that proponents of productive aging seek to change.

Economists point out that the economic challenges of the early twenty-first century are quite different than that of the previous century. Contrary to having vast supplies of young skilled labor, the nation has been faced with modest economic growth, a limited supply of skilled labor, and an aging population. The United States will need to develop strategies to respond to these changing economic and demographic conditions. According the Hudson Institute, in their report Workforce 2020, should America continue to experience even limited economic growth, sustained skilled-labor shortages loom on the horizon. Economists argue that rather than encouraging early retirement of older workers, public policy needs to be directed toward retraining and engaging the available talent.

Productive aging calls into question the lost opportunities to both society and the individual through policies or practices of articulated withdrawal of older people from productive activity. Policies, from Social Security to private pension policies, need to be considered in light of the changing economic landscape and the overall benefits to the individual, the tax base, and the economy, should older people choose to be engaged in productive activity well into their later years. While productive aging is not the holy grail of aging, it does raise questions about the enhanced roles some older people may choose to play in a modern and mature society.

Scott A. Bass

See also Aging; Education, Disengagement; Volunteer Activities and Programs.


Bass, S. A. Older and Active: How Americans over 55 Are Contributing to Society. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Bass, S. A., and Caro, F. G. "Productive Aging: A Conceptual Framework." In Productive Aging: Concepts, Cautions, and Challenges. Edited by N. Morrow-Howell, J. E. Hinterlong, and M. W. Herraden. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Bass, S. A.; Kutza, E. A.; and Torres-Gil, F. M. "Diversity in Aging: The Challenges Facing the White House Conference on Aging." InDiversity in Aging: Challenges Facing Planners & Policymakers in the 1990s. Edited by S. A. Bass, E. A. Kutza, and F. M. Torres-Gil. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1990. Pages 175183.

Butler, R. N. Why Survive? New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

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

Caro, F. G.; Bass, S. A.; and Chen, Y.-P. "Introduction: Achieving a Productive Aging Society." In Achieving a Productive Aging Society. Edited by S. A. Bass, F. G. Caro, and Y.-P. Chen. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1993. Pages 325.

Caro, F. G., and Bass, S. A. "Dimensions of Productive Engagement." In Older and Active: How Americans Over 55 Are Contributing to Society. Edited by S. A. Bass. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Pages 204216.

Coleman, K. "The Value of Productive Activities of Older Americans." In Older and Active: How Americans Over 55 Are Contributing to Society. Edited by S. A. Bass. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Pages 169203.

Estes, C. L. The Aging Enterprise. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1983.

Herzog, A.; Kahn, R.; Morgan, R.; Jackson, J.; and Antonucci, T. "Age Differences in Productive Activities." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 44 (1989): 129138.

Holstein, M. "Productive Aging: A Feminist Critique." Journal of Aging and Social Policy 4, no. 3/4 (1992): 1733.

Judy, R. W., and D'amico, C. D. Workforce 2020. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hudson Institute, 1997.

Quinn, J., and Burkhauser, R. "Retirement and the Labor Force Behavior of the Elderly." In The Demography of Aging. Edited by L. G. Martin and S. H. Martin. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994. Pages 50101.

Rowe, J. W., and Kahn, R. L. Successful Aging. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.