Social Work Productive Engagement of Older Adults
Nancy Morrow-Howell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • 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. The statistics are sobering, and societies face huge challenges in providing economic security and health care to burgeoning older populations. It is true that there are growing numbers of older adults who 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 care and 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 among 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 bibliography reflects a broad scope of critical issues associated with productive engagement in later life. Its author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Yi Wang, MSW candidate at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis in researching and creating this bibliography.

Introductory Works

There are many excellent books that 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. 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. It has 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. Schulz and Binstock 2008 assesses and analyzes current aging-related policies and programs in the United States and their impacts from an economic and political perspective. In contrast to widely accepted stereotypes, productive roles have been recognized and advocated by scholars. Czaja and Sharit 2009 offers a comprehensive discussion of issues surrounding work and the aging population; 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. Morrow-Howell and Freedman 2006–2007 reviews current issues and trends in the civic engagement of older adults.

  • 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.

  • Czaja, S. J., and J. Sharit, eds. 2009. Aging and work: Issues and implications in a changing landscape. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    This is a comprehensive, insightful book about the complex issues surrounding work and the aging population. It provides a multidisciplinary assessment of current knowledge about aging and employment; examines employers’ expectations for older employees; addresses numerous challenges confronting the aging labor force; discusses possible solutions; and raises future issues for researchers and policymakers.

  • 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.

  • Morrow-Howell, N., and M. Freedman, eds. 2006–2007. Special issue: Civic engagement in later life. Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging 30.4.

    A special issue compiled of articles that discuss various types of civic engagement across age cohorts and the life course, analyze their outcomes and effects, study civic engagement and older adults with critical perspectives, talk about current issues, and describe civic engagement programs for older people.

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

  • Schulz, J. H., and R. H. Binstock. 2008. Aging nation: The economics and politics of growing older in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    In an attempt to counter misconceptions perpetrated by politicians and pundits, the authors provide a comprehensive and balanced assessment of the economic and political issues in aging America. Based on the most current data, the authors provide in-depth analysis of the nation’s private and public policies on retirement, employer pensions, health care, workplace conditions, and entitlement programs.

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