Social Work Productive Engagement of Older Adults
Nancy Morrow-Howell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0153


There is extraordinary growth in the number and proportion of older adults in almost every country around the world. Low birthrates and low death rates are transforming the age structure of societies. Certainly, societies face challenges in ensuring economic security and health care to burgeoning older populations. It is true that growing numbers of older adults are physically and cognitively frail from the chronic conditions prevalent in late life. However, a larger number of older adults are fit and functioning, with as many as twenty years of life after formal retirement. And it is likely that the average age for the onset of dependency and death will continue to rise. By and large, the discussion of population aging has focused on “age drain”—the burden of older adults on the economy and the health-care system. We do not deny that chronic conditions and resulting disabilities eventually curtail human capacity for certain activities and that many older adults need supportive services. However, the productive aging perspective suggests that health and social services do not sufficiently address the issues of an aging society. The “age drain” perspective ignores the growing human capital of the older population, especially as education levels increase. This capacity can be engaged in activities that make economic and social contributions to society, including working, volunteering, caregiving, and grandparenting. This engagement can lead to multiple positive ends: offsetting the financial strains of an aging population, contributing to the betterment of society, and maintaining the health of older adults (Morrow-Howell, et al. 2001, cited under Introductory Works). This bibliography defines productive engagement in later life as the participation of older adults in activities that produce goods and services, whether paid for or not. This includes working, volunteering, and caregiving. Other scholars include educational and training activities. Indeed, there is not a set definition, but the term “productive engagement” represents the shift from the perspective that sees older adults as burdens to one that views them as contributors. As seen in the literature presented here, scholars have sought to understand current levels of productive engagement, factors associated with this engagement, programs and policies that promote engagement, and the outcomes of engagement to the individual, families, communities, and society. This article reflects a broad scope of critical issues associated with productive engagement in later life. Its author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Morgan Van Vleck and Sophie Mauk, graduate students at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis in creating this bibliography.

Introductory Works

Many excellent books provide introductions and overviews about productive engagement in later life. These books are based on the perspective that the growing capacity of the older population should be recognized and encouraged for the sake of older individuals as well as society. In this bibliography, classic writings, as well as more current works, are included. Robert Butler introduced the term “productive aging” more than forty years ago to call attention away from the dependencies associated with later life to the current and potential contributions of older people (Butler and Gleason 1985). Bass, et al. 1993 discusses the concept of productive aging, identifies the current options available to older people, and addresses major challenges in achieving a productive aging society. The authors also contributed the first conceptual framework on factors associated with productive engagement. Morrow-Howell, et al. 2001 consolidates the best thinking of a group of prominent gerontologists about the conceptual and the theoretical framework of productive aging, while emphasizing the importance of an interdisciplinary perspective. Freedman 2007 describes working longer in jobs with a social purpose as a new movement that represents positive outcomes for older adults and society; and Munnell and Sass 2008 presents working longer as the solution to the economic challenges faced by the older population. Musick and Wilson 2008 makes a significant contribution in covering a comprehensive range of topics regarding volunteering by older adults. More recent scholarship has focused on longer working lives and the aging workforce, with two edited volumes that include multidisciplinary perspectives, various stakeholders’ positions, and the scholarship from experts in the field (Czaja, et al. 2020; Fideler 2021). Over time, scholars have recognized the importance of a life-course perspective and intersections of social forces in understanding productive roles in later life (Morrow-Howell, et al. 2018). Also, the positive and negative effects of role engagement depend not only on the personal characteristics of the older person but also on the nature and perceived quality of experience within the activity (Matz, et al. 2020).

  • Bass, S. A., F. G. Caro, and Y. Chen, eds. 1993. Achieving a productive aging society. Westport, CT: Auburn House.

    This pioneering book on productive aging assesses the status of productive engagement among the older population and provides a conceptual framework for understanding engagement activities and outcomes. Authors of the edited volume identify major issues and obstacles, including the need to change perceptions and attitudes toward older adults. They highlight the importance of transforming institutions to enable productive engagement of older adults.

  • Butler, R. N., and H. Gleason. 1985. Productive aging: Enhancing vitality in later life. New York: Springer.

    In the first book using the concept of “productive aging,” the authors warned against extending human life for longevity itself but encouraged meaningful engagement of people into the longer life course. They called for the direction of attention away from the limitations of later life toward to potential of ongoing contribution and meaning.

  • Czaja, S., J. Sharit, and J. James. 2020. Current and emerging trends in aging and work. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-24135-3

    This edited volume offers a comprehensive look at age and work. Themes include the changing nature of retirement, the need for longer working lives to meet economic needs, the important role of technology and ongoing skill development, and the demand that employing organizations prepare for a multigenerational workforce.

  • Fideler, E. F. 2021. The Rowman & Littlefield handbook on aging and work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    In this collection of articles from the top experts in the field, a wide range of challenges and opportunities in the workplace associated with demographic shifts are considered. The perspectives of older workers, supervisors, work organizations, and policymakers are included. This is an excellent resource for those interested in the topic of work and productive engagement of older people.

  • Freedman, M. 2007. Encore: Finding work that matters in the second half of life. New York: PublicAffairs.

    The author describes a vision for the next stage of work through telling stories of encore career pioneers who resisted stepping back from meaningful work and searched for a calling in later life. Shifting from “freedom from work” to “freedom to work,” the author discusses both the financial meaning and the psychic identity of work.

  • Matz, C., E. Sabbath, and J. James. 2020. An integrative conceptual framework of engagement in socially-productive activity in late life. Clinical Social Work Journal 48.6: 156–168.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10615-020-00756-x

    In this manuscript, the authors put forth a framework that centers the concept of quality engagement, a concept they found missing in the study of outcomes associated with productive engagement. They argue that elements of the role and the context in which they are enacted determine whether the individual will benefit from that involvement.

  • Morrow-Howell, N., E. Gonzales, J. James, C. Matz-Costa, and M. Putnam. 2018. Advancing long and productive lives. In Grand challenges for social work and society. Edited by R. Fong, J. Lubben, and R. Barth. 81–102. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The productive engagement of older adults was selected by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare as one of the grand challenges of our society. In this overview of the topic, the authors review the demographic imperative and the associated challenges and opportunities in maximizing the engagement of older people as workers, volunteers, and caregivers. The focus is on programs and policies to facilitate engagement in ways that maximizes positive outcomes for individuals, families, and societies.

  • Morrow-Howell, N., J. Hinterlong, and M. Sherraden. 2001. Productive aging: Concepts and challenges. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    The book defines the principles, historical perspectives, and conceptual frameworks for productive aging. It takes a multidisciplinary approach, assessing the biomedical, psychological, sociological, and economic implications of a more capable older population. Also, it considers advances in theories of aging and suggests future directions in practice, theory, and research.

  • Munnell, A., and S. A. Sass. 2008. Working longer: The solution to the retirement income challenge. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

    This book reviews challenges and opportunities of recruiting and retaining older workers who need income to support longer periods of retirement. It investigates the effects of moving the average retirement age from 63 to 66 and calls for improvements in Social Security, employer pensions, and 401(k) plans.

  • Musick, M. A., and J. Wilson. 2008. Volunteers: A social profile. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    This book is a comprehensive review of current research on volunteering. The authors augment existing research with their own analysis of data from secondary sources. Content covers volunteer motivation by focusing on individuals’ subjective states, their available resources, and the influence of age, gender, and race, as well as organizational features that affect volunteering and outcomes of volunteering.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.