Just a Thought
The age of civic renaissance
In 1900 the average age of the developed world population was about 47 years. Today, the figure is 80+ with continuing increases anticipated in the coming decades. The addition of four decades to the lifespan constitutes one of the most remarkable gifts of the 20th century. The retirement of many post-war baby boomers in Australia, together with the increase in life expectancy, is transforming us into a much older society.
Over the past years we have heard concerns about the “greying” of Australia and its societal consequences. These concerns have been expressed by two groups. The medical practitioners are concerned about the increase in dependency, disease, and dementia. Where the doctors notice decay, economists perceive need. Policy-makers realise that we can ill afford a leisure class comprised of nearly half of the nation's population.
There is no denying the enormous impact of an ageing society, but the narrow terms of these debates do not go far enough to address the issues presented by the age boom. Adjustments are needed in social security and Medicare. However, the age boom is also an opportunity provided that we know how to tap into seniors' time, talent, and civic potential which are our country's increasing natural resource.
The Boom Generation (1940-1964)
Some young adults grew up in an era of community-spirited progress. Some rebelled against conformity and did not want to do anything the way it was done by their elders. Some turned out to be the result of post-war optimism and others were raised on Benjamin Spock's rationalism. As they matured some boomers proclaimed antipathy to secular blueprints of their parents and claimed inner visions over outer, self-perfection over thing-making and team-playing. Some boomers' awakening climaxed with Vietnam War protests, or the 1967 "summer of love," or peace activism and civil dissent. Some boomers appointed themselves arbiter of the nation's values and swarmed into such culture careers as teaching, religion, journalism, marketing and the arts. Since entering mid-life in the 1990s, some boomers have been proclaiming values, questioning the meaning of politics and waging culture wars. Now pushing 60 years some of these boomers reject the old notion of retirement.
While some boomers may seem to be more influential in the culture than in the economy or politics — as opposed to the parents who raised them — others want to champion social causes and help make a better world. Liberal economists are often heard of describing these seniors as the “new revolutionary class” eager to voice concerns to ensure social welfare of future generations. For example, many of the 80,000 NSW membership of CoTA National Seniors (CNS) alone could become a driving force to influence decision-making within the government. Its State Policy Council endeavours to highlight social inequities with a view to influencing distribution of more funds to support the health and wellbeing of citizens. Members of this group are generally better-educated. They want to do public good in ways that tap into their expertise and experiences; and they want to see the impact of their efforts!
Stages of retirement
Some seniors find the “doing nothing” stereotype of retirement appealing. However, because our lives have been so extended, after a few years of tennis, golf and crossword puzzles, many of these people soon look for more purposeful tasks. It is then that they look to community engagement to replace what they enjoyed about their work: camaraderie, intellectual stimulation and meaningful work. They are not happy to drift with the flow and want a sense of purpose and achievement. Also, they want to fit this in with their lives—weekly or seasonally — depending on the nature and level of meaning the work provides. While a life of leisure, of volunteering and learning, may be the road that many retirees may take, the reality of longevity and maintaining a living standard on a fixed income in the midst of rising costs often charts a different path for millions of Australians.
Australia today possesses not only one of the fastest growing groups of 50+ seniors but also one of the most vigorous and educated. A majority experience no disability; they are healthy and happy, dependable and reliable. These Australian seniors possess what the middle generation lacks: Time.
First, seniors have time to care. The prevalence of early retirement and longer life means that many now working will spend a third or more of their adult life in retirement. Second, they have more time lived. They also have practical knowledge and, in many cases, wisdom gained from experience. These seniors are the nation's greatest repository of social capital. Recognising the hallmark of successful late-life development — as observed by Erikson I am what survives of me — seniors' time left to live gives them a special reason to become more involved in civic and voluntary work. This is their legacy to others.
Some studies report that more 50+ seniors now consider work as a matter of self-interest because they fear the loss of usefulness after retirement. While, in and of itself, this loss of human potential is a cause for concern, the stakes extend beyond personal fulfilment. “At a juncture when there is no dearth of talent and skill we do not have a single person to waste….. we simply cannot afford it as a society” (Maggie Kuhn, 1905-2005).
Other studies following people over their lives link community engagement to prolong physical and mental health in older age. While we might expect to see 50+ in “community service”, many studies show that “community engagement” as a profession has fallen sharply in recent years. In this connection, Freedman (2005) suggests that the level of “community engagement” can be increased as career professions in non-profit organisations.
Community engagement focuses on the community we serve, more than focussing on the service we perform for the community. In other words, focus is directed outward to the external world and not inward to meet immediate needs of the community. "Community engagement" adds a theoretical base to "community service"; it provides an academic structure to the methodology of the service; and it safeguards professionalism and quality assurance.
The challenge, then, is to find a balance between “community service” and “community engagement” so that the goals of the task mesh with those of a dynamic and changing environment. To be relevant, efforts must focus on
- doing the right things (knowing what) by reviewing and identifying changing societal needs and designing a facility that best satisfies the needs and expectations; and
- doing things right (knowing how) by reviewing expectations and improving methods while at the same time minimising any negative social impacts.
Some members of the Boom generation were told from birth that their lives are significant and so they are not ready to stop being significant just because they hit a career ceiling called retirement age. Literature surveys show that some of these boomers want to benefit their communities by helping the poor, elderly, children, the arts or the environment. Some others do not want to retire. But, the 2 December 2005 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that only a few institutions and non-profit organisations are taking advantage of their skills.http://www.philanthropy.com/
How do many seniors spend their time?
A study of the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reveals a strong link between obesity rates and how much time people spend watching television. Self-reported data and measured weight ratios show that older Australians now are heavier than older Australians were a generation ago. The AIHW data reports that the number of Australians who are obese has more than doubled in the past 20 years, with the finding that 60 per cent of Australians are now either overweight or obese (Ref: http://www.aihw.gov.au ). A staggering 50 per cent of these seniors are obese because of their “couch potato” lifestyle i.e. watching excess television (Ref: TV viewing time linked to Australia 's obesity epidemic, http://www.mydr.com.au ).
So, how do Australians spend their time outside of the responsibilities of work (paid and voluntary), education, family/household responsibilities and other commitments? The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 1999) define this as “free time” and suggest that Australians have an average of 5 hours free time per day (more on weekends and less on weekdays). Understanding how much free time people have and how they chose to use it is a key to what they consider important to their own wellbeing, if not what assists them to find meaning in life. Free time, or lack thereof, also varies depending on a person's characteristics such as age, gender and whether they have children. The 1997 “Time Use Survey” is helpful in making generalisations about the amount of free-time particular groups of people have and the way in which it is used.
Housework is the next major activity absorbing time in later life. It is no surprise that many lament the loss of usefulness after retirement.
Today, many of the Generation X confronts a shortage of time. Generation X is widely defined as those born between 1961 and 1981. The ABS data indicates that, as at June 1997, the population of Generation X in Australia was approximately 5,952,848 people (ABS, 1997). Many in this generation (accounting for at least a quarter of Australia 's total population) are struggling to work long hours and raise children. Most significantly, this time-famine is afflicting women — some of whom are the former bastions of civic life in society. At the same time, many mothers with preschoolers and infants are employed in full-time work. When work, childrearing, and household chores are combined, many women are each working more. It is no wonder that volunteering overall has declined since the end of the last decade.
And so Australia 's growing older population could contribute to civic life of this country, provided that they are offered challenging opportunities to acquire skills and retrain to make a contribution to society, and at the same time benefit themselves.
Few such opportunities exist at present. While the greying of Australia is dramatically altering the social landscape, we have yet to develop the institutions appropriate to these new demographic realities. To date, our most profound institutional invention concerning the ageing society is probably the “retirement community” that private developers are using to lure retirees. But, what about senior Australians who would rather remain in the workforce and be a vital part of their communities? In general, there is little headway in re-engaging these individuals, despite the reality that our neighborhoods can ill afford to lose the social capital they possess. Furthermore, emerging evidence indicates that the reigning conception of retirement is also breaking down. Quietly, often out of inescapable need, many of these seniors are increasing their presence in family life. As grandparents, they are raising children as working mothers rely on them to provide primary childcare.
Outside the family some intriguing developments are also evident. For example, the emergence of a group of role models who demonstrate that later life can be a time of continued growth, discovery, and contribution. Therefore, a great deal will depend on the institutions that we create.
At the ground level, some boomers – many of whom are retirees themselves – are capable of taking matters into their own hands and creating a set of service institutions that offer a glimpse of future possibilities. They could be categorised as social entrepreneurs attempting to strengthen academic achievement, and brokering to bolster cultural ties between institutions and industries, mobilising neighbourhood talents and local skills in support of social causes.
These individuals have a vision. They prefer active engagement to traditional philanthropy and volunteering. Survey findings make clear that these people want to inspire and be inspired, to achieve a ''connection'' with the world and a ''sense of purpose'' for their existence. They are not willing to drift along. It is these types of reasons that motivate active community engagement and leadership. There could be no more compelling statement about why these persons want to be involved in active engagement with their communities, Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country —JF Kennedy, 1961 .
Universities could find a new market in giving accomplished seniors of traditional retirement age the added skills and credentials to leap from business careers into human service and community leadership (higher education, hospitals, public schools, museums and community organisations). But they must rethink their workplace models. In other words, many of the boomers' generation are redefining what it means to grow older. The real issue is who will benefit from this addition of an entirely new life-stage, one equaling the middle years in duration? Will this development serve mostly to enrich the leisure industry and lead to the kind of intergenerational conflict that some predict? Or would it produce a civic windfall for Australian communities?
The outcome will depend in large part on the structures that are created for community engagement in the context of an ageing society. The outcome will also depend on the public policies that support these new creations. In the end, the value of expanding opportunities for senior individuals to continue to contribute will extend beyond the more efficient matching of untapped resources and unmet needs.
Average time spent daily in free-time activity. Time Use Survey, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1997, www.abs.gov.au
Australia 's obesity epidemic. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, http://www.aihw.gov.au
Catford J C & Caterson I D, 2003. Snowballing obesity: Australians will get run over if they just sit there. Medical Journal of Australia 2003; 179 (11/12) : 577-579.
Freedman M. 2004. Reinventing retirement: strategies for an ageing world . Paper presented to the Association of Retired Persons International (ARPI) Conference, 17-19 November 2004, London , UK .
Freedman M, 1996. The ageing opportunity: America 's elderly as a civic resource. Volume 7, Issue 29 (Nov-Dec 1996), The American Prospect, http://www.prospect.org/web/index
Gore J, 1998. The Common good:revisiting values education: The role of civics and citizenship education. Paper presented at the Pacific Circle Consortium Conference, Colima, Mexico, 21 April 1998,
Hall H, 2005. Major leadership shortage in nonprofit world expected in next two decades. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2 December 2005, http://www.philanthropy.com/
Kennedy JF, 1961. Inaugural Address, 20 January 1961, http://www.famousquotes.me.uk/speeches/John_F_Kennedy/5.htm
Kuhn M, 2005. http://mtmt.essortment.com/maggiekuhn_rfxw.htm
National Standards for Civics and Government . Centre for Civic Education 1994, Calabasas, California, USA, 1994.
TV viewing time linked to Australia's obesity epidemic, 2003. MIMS myDr. http://www.mydr.com.au
Well, let us see what 2006 holds for all ….. In the meantime, I wish you a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
Program Manager and Editor, Quality4life
15 December 2005