Senior Leisure Lifestyles

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In the early decades of the twentieth century, the life course was conceptualized into three distinct, age-segregated stages: education during childhood and adolescence; work during early and middle adulthood; leisure during later life following retirement. The irony of this perspective about the life course was that many individuals never retired unless forced to because of declining health, and average life expectancy was only about seventy years of age. Hence, many older persons never experienced a leisure state, and if they did, a short life expectancy meant they had only a few years to experience leisure in good health.

Today, the life course is conceptualized as an ageintegrated structure, wherein education, work, and leisure are possible, and desirable, at all stages as people strive for a more balanced lifestyle across the life course. Thus, just as adolescents attend school, often hold part-time jobs, and engage in a variety of leisure pursuits, so do older adults participate in a variety of leisure activities, perhaps hold part-time jobs or volunteer positions, and pursue formal or informal education.

Social Change: From Work to Leisure in Later Life

In postindustrial societies, leisure has become a lifelong expressive domain that is an integral part of our social, cultural, economic, and political institutions. For each birth cohort that reaches later life, leisure has become a more significant component of lifestyles, and an element of daily life that provides meaning and an identity for older adults. Leisure is no longer viewed as a way to "kill time," or the alternative to work. Rather, it is an integral factor in contributing to successful aging, and to life satisfaction, well-being, personal identity, and a higher quality of life in the future. How and why did this shift in the importance of leisure in later life occur since the mid-1900s? In general, the change resulted from a combination of population aging, social change, and personal agency.

Population aging Because of declining birth rates since the 1960s (about 1.5 children per female), and an increasing life expectancy (about seventy-six years for men and eighty-two for women), adults over sixty-five years of age represented about 13 percent of the total population in North America in 2003. It is projected that this percentage will increase to about 15 percent by 2011, when the first wave of the baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1966) begins to retire, to 21 percent by 2026, and to 25 percent by 2031, when the last of the boomers will be retired. Clearly, the population is aging. And among this rapidly growing segment of the population, those in the eighty-and-over category are growing the fastest. By 2030, it is projected that those eighty years of age and older will compose 5 to 8 percent of the total population, and about 25 percent of the population sixtyfive and over.

These demographic facts are no longer surprising. However, there are a number of lesser-known demographic facts that have implications for leisure lifestyles, policies, and programs for older adults. First, aging is primarily a woman's issue. The sex ratio at age sixty-five is about seventy-five males for every hundred females; this ratio decreases to about twenty-five males per hundred females by ninety years of age. Whereas most older men are married and thereby have a leisure partner and a potential caregiver, most older women are widowed, divorced, or never married. More older women live alone, more are institutionalized, and older women have less economic security. And, until recent decades, women have had fewer opportunities to engage in leisure throughout the life course beyond the family context, primarily due to the lack of a work career and personal discretionary income.

A second important demographic fact is that as life expectancy has increased, health status has improved, and there has been an increase in the number of disability-free years in later life. Thus, older adults are not only reaching the later years having been more physically and cognitively active during leisure throughout the work years, they have a greater capacity and potential to pursue active lifestyles well into the later years of life. At the start of the twenty-first century, a longer life meant that leisure would serve as a primary social activity for a longer period of time.

A third demographic fact is that the older population is increasingly mobile due to increased economic resources and improved health status. This is reflected in migration rates to a second place of residence to pursue a leisure lifestyle during the winter and/or summer seasons, and by increased travel and tourism within North America and abroad by older adults. The economic potential of this "gray" travel, tourism, and leisure market has yet to be tapped fully, but it will be when the baby boom generation enters retirement with large economic resources and a generational history of expenditures on leisure and consumer products.

Social change Leisure opportunities are related to one's position in the social structure across the life course. Inequities in access to leisure are based on gender, class background, race, ethnicity, and rural or urban residency. Chronological age as well can be a barrier to certain types of leisure through age grading, wherein stereotypes or age discrimination emerge—individuals are perceived to be too old to participate in a specific activity, and therefore facilities or programs are not provided for older adults. This type of ageism, when combined with racism or sexism, means that some segments of society never have an opportunity to pursue some types of leisure—unless social change and democratization occurs.

Leisure lifestyles are influenced by work and family parameters. Harold Wilensky noted that "work routine places a hand on leisure routine" (p. 545). Over time, however, work routines and demands have changed. The workweek is shorter, vacation entitlements have increased, more women are employed full-time, there is more "flex time," and wages have increased. By the end of the twentieth century, a knowledge-based economy emerged wherein higher education and lifelong learning were essential for entry to, and success in, the labor force. These trends created new types and meanings for leisure. More recently, careers were shortened as people sought or were forced into early retirement by restructuring or downsizing. Consequently, fewer people over sixty-five work, and more individuals enter retirement in their late fifties. To illustrate, in 1950, about 46 percent of older men in the United States were still in the labor force, but by 2000, only 17 percent of men in this age group were still working (Cutler and Hendricks, p. 463). As the time devoted to work has decreased, leisure has become a more important milieu to create and maintain a self-identity.

In the family domain, more never-married and divorced persons, more childless couples or couples with fewer children, and more dual-career families have changed the nature of leisure during middle and late adulthood. With more discretionary time and income for leisure, and more public and private facilities available, more leisure occurs outside the home and with nonfamily members, especially among those in higher socioeconomic strata. These trends are especially prevalent among the baby boom generation. Spending and pursuing leisure has been a major characteristic of this generation. Benefiting from high employment and wage rates through most of their working life, and benefiting from large inheritances from parents and grandparents who saved their earnings, this generation will enter the retirement years with a new perspective on leisure, and an ability to pay for their leisure needs. Consequently, leisure for seniors will become "big" business in the mid-twenty-first century, especially for clothing, equipment, facilities, and tourism.

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to develop the following ideas in depth, they have had a significant impact on the changing nature of leisure in later life. First, as higher education became both more important for career success, and more accessible to diverse segments of society, leisure opportunities expanded in terms of diversity, accessibility, meaning, and frequency. Each cohort of retirees is better educated and has a larger leisure repertoire. Second, the feminist movement created expanded opportunities for women in the leisure domain. Women gained more education, entered careers, saved money, and pursued their own leisure interests beyond the family domain. Third, as society evolved over the twentieth century, voluntary behavior became more common during increased leisure time. Many of those entering the retirement years represent an untapped source of experienced volunteer labor that should be utilized, both for the benefit of society and for individuals to feel that they are contributing to society. Finally, while some older persons feel more comfortable in age-segregated environments (such as a retirement homes or communities), many seek intergenerational contact and involvement. Leisure settings present an ideal milieu for age-integrated social interaction.

Human agency People do not age in a vacuum, nor are they passive puppets manipulated by social forces as they move across their personal life course. Rather, people have the capacity to make choices and decisions, and to shift their priorities and seek new opportunities. As active agents, people have the potential and ability, within reason, to use human and social capital in the pursuit of leisure activities. One's place in the social structure, by virtue of gender, class, race, or ethnic background, can facilitate or constrain the opportunities and resources available for leisure. But, with increased education and wealth, and with new social networks, one's leisure world can be changed. Thus, within each cohort that reaches retirement age, there is considerable diversity in terms of leisure experiences, interests, needs, and meanings. Older-age cohorts are the most heterogeneous cohorts in society, and this diversity presents a challenge to policy makers and program personnel who strive to meet the needs of an ever-changing older population. To illustrate, the meaning of everyday activities such as learning, cooking, gardening, and shopping is perceived by some older adults to be a burden; to others these activities are a source of pleasure and a hobby, as well as a necessity.

Leisure in Later Life

The onset of retirement or premature unemployment forces individuals to cope with unstructured time after a lifetime wherein most of daily life was structured around work requirements. Suddenly, large blocks of unstructured time are available (up to thirty or fifty hours per week). As Jiri Zuzanek and S. Box stated, "Having more free time does not automatically translate into greater happiness. Being able to fill this time with activities and to structure it in a meaningful and diversified way does" (p. 179). In the later years of life, time can be perceived to pass quickly or slowly. If time is abused or not used in a meaningful way, it drags and boredom results. Boredom is a self-induced state that occurs when there is an excess of discretionary time or an inability to manage time. For those who perceive time to fly quickly, it is usually the case that they are more socially involved and their daily calendars are full with meaningful and satisfying activities.

Sidebar 1: Barriers to Leisure in Later Life

Individual Constraints

  • • Declining health and energy, or onset of a disability
  • • Loss of interest in specific activities
  • • Loss of a partner due to widowhood or divorce
  • • Decreased economic resources
  • • Inability to drive or use public transportation, if available
  • • Caregiving requirements for a partner

Societal Constraints

  • • Facilities and programs are not provided or are not accessible for seniors
  • • Information about leisure opportunities is not disseminated
  • • Public transportation is not available
  • • Public subsidies for low-income seniors are not provided
  • • Stereotypes and myths discourage involvement by seniors in some types of activities (sports, computers, formal education)

Patterns of leisure across the life course. Throughout the life course, we acquire a repertoire of leisure skills, interests, and activities. New interests and skills can be acquired and developed at any age, but consistency in the leisure repertoire persists into later life, although the frequency or form might change. A lifetime opera fan may attend fewer live performances in later life but still pursue this interest by listening to opera on radio or CD. Figure 1 illustrates possible patterns of leisure involvement across the life course. The curves can represent different patterns of general leisure involvement for six different individuals; they can represent the degree of involvement in a specific type of leisure (such as reading fiction) across the life course for six different individuals; they can represent, for one individual, patterns of leisure involvement or the degree of importance or meaning for six different activities: A = team sport; B = movie attendance; C = membership in a political party; D = reading for pleasure; E = golf; F = travel. The key point is that among a diverse group of older persons, and within any one individual, many types, patterns, and meanings of leisure can prevail across the life course, and in later life.

Leisure constraints in later life There is continuity between work and retirement leisure lifestyles, although the number of activities and the frequency of involvement may increase or decrease in retirement. Opportunities to engage in leisure in later life can be restricted or prevented by individual and societal constraints, many of which result from one's place in the social structure—female or male; black, Hispanic, white, or Asian; well educated or poorly educated; upper or lower class; rural or urban residents? Sidebar 1 illustrates some individual and societal barriers that can prevent equal access to leisure in later life.

Leisure opportunities in later life Sidebar 2 illustrates some emerging trends and patterns in many leisure pursuits of older adults.

Sidebar 2: Leisure Patterns and Trends in Later Life

  • • Increased involvement in age-integrated or intergenerational activities with those in younger age cohorts
  • • Increased voluntary association involvement, especially following early retirement, in activities related to lifelong job-related skills or leisure interests
  • • Increased political participation ("gray power") as voters, candidates, demonstrators, and lobbyists (especially concerning health and pension matters)
  • • Increased involvement in formal and informal education—lifelong learning persists into the later years if opportunities are provided (for example, reduced fees at universities, Elderhostel programs, computer courses)
  • • Increased physical activity (for both health and social benefits), especially those in the baby boom generation who were influenced by the fitness and health promotion movements earlier in life; in the sport domain, masters, veterans, and senior competitions held locally, nationally, and internationally
  • • Greater involvement in activities heretofore seldom, if ever, socially sanctioned for older adults—dating, cohabiting, and remarriage, including the use of the "personal" columns; gambling, especially by women, at casinos; tourism, including adventure tours and visits to exotic locations; starting a business; or moving to a new community to initiate a new lifestyle and a new social network

Aging involves both continuity and change across the life course. Most older adults continue to pursue leisure interests initiated earlier in life. But for those who wish to learn and acquire new leisure skills in later life, the capacity to learn is high, if opportunities are provided. In later life, if leisure is to contribute to well-being, life satisfaction, and a high quality of life, activities must be meaningful, and most should involve interaction with others, especially with those who are younger. If older adults are to reach their full leisure potential, constraints on leisure in later life should be eliminated by the individual, and by the public and private sectors. Public policies must allocate more resources to the leisure needs of a growing aging population. No longer is one set or type of leisure activity deemed "ideal" for older adults. Rather, with expanding opportunities and increased health and economic status, most activities available to other age groups can and should be pursued by older adults. Even when institutionalized late in life, appropriate leisure activities are an important resource to enhance the quality of life of residents.

See also: Civic Clubs, Men; Civic Clubs, Women; Leisure and Civil Society


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——. "Aging and Social Participation," In Aging as a Social Process: An Introduction to Individual and Population Aging. 4th edition. Edited by Barry McPherson. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Wilensky, Harold. "Work, Careers and Social Integration," International Social Science Journal 12, no. 4 (1960): 543–560.

Zuzanek, Jiri, and S. Box. "Life Course and the Daily Lives of Older Adults in Canada." In Daily Life in Later Life: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Karen Altergott. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1988.

Barry D. McPherson