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Older Adults' Engagement Should Be Recognized and Encouraged

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Document date: July 28, 2005
Released online: July 28, 2005

Brief #1 from the series Perspectives on Productive Aging

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


Older adults enhance society in many ways. While many engage in paid work, many others move from career jobs into unpaid activities that contribute to the public good. Many volunteer through formal or informal channels, providing help to neighbors and friends. Many older adults care for their frail parents, disabled spouses and children, and young grandchildren. Some older adults combine paid work with other activities.

This brief, the first in a series, summarizes the types and intensity of engagement among adults age 55 and older in 2002. We define engagement as time spent in paid work, formal volunteering, informal volunteering, and caregiving activities. This brief also shows how engagement varies by age and individual characteristics. Future briefs will focus on particular types of engagement, the relationship between engagement and retirement satisfaction, and the economic value of these activities.

As the population ages, the contributions of older adults deserve more recognition. Older Americans represent a tremendous resource to society today and offer even greater potential for the future. Older adults, freed of parenting chores, can devote more time to other family members, community organizations, and neighborhoods. The potential contributions of older adults will grow rapidly as baby boomers age. Three in ten Americans will be 55 or older—prime engagement years—by 2030, up from two in ten today (U.S. Census Bureau 2004). By enhancing our understanding now, we can prepare to tap the baby boomers' full engagement potential.

The report presents results from the 2002 Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative survey of adults age 55 and older.1 The HRS measures four types of engagement: hours working for pay, hours engaged in formal volunteer activities (defined as volunteering for an organization), hours engaged in informal volunteering (helping others who do not live in the same household), and hours caring for family members (including spouses, grandchildren, and parents). Caregiving for children and parents generally is only counted as engagement if the number of hours exceeds 100 in the previous two years.2

Notes from this section

The authors thank Barbara A. Butrica and Richard W. Johnson for their expertise and comments.

1. The data presented here are weighted to represent the U.S. noninstitutionalized population age 55 and older. Appropriate statistical methods have been used to control for the complex sample design of the HRS when performing significance tests. For more information on the HRS, see http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu.

2. Total annual hours of engagement are estimated from reports of individual activities that often use different reference periods and, sometimes, hour thresholds. Engagement is defined as total hours worked for pay in the past 12 months, plus hours spent volunteering for an organization in the past 12 months, plus hours spent helping others who did not live with the respondent in the past 12 months, plus spousal care (annualized from reports for the past month), plus child care (annualized from reports for the past two years, if child care exceeds 100 hours), plus parental care (annualized from reports for the past two years, if the respondent's and spouse's hours exceed 100 hours). Note that those who engaged fewer hours than the HRS thresholds are not reported or included in our estimates.


Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Retirement and Older Americans


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