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Productivity Is Different, But Still Important, In Retirement

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question. I was the executive director of a nonprofit organization and retired two years ago.   Since then, I have taken up photography and just love it. Yet, there are too many times when I feel guilty for not being productive.  Is this just part of the retirement process?  How do I let go of the guilt?  (I’m 68 and female.)

Answer. The operative work in your question is “productive.”

For many of us, the need to feel productive is in our DNA.  It’s part of our spiritual and psychological core and for good reason.  We have been heavily influenced by the Puritan work ethic that emphasized hard work, not to waste time and responsibility for the well-being of everyone.  This is part of our American history, culture and values.  It has worked well for us as a nation.

Frederick Taylor introduced the term “productivity” at the turn of the last century.   It was used as a measurement of labor, output and efficiency and as a major business determinant.

Productivity also has been defined as the power to produce, having generative power and being fruitful.  Working folks typically have responded to this meaning by fulfilling the demands and expectations of their employers.

Performance reviews, salary increases and promotions — or just keeping your job — have given us clues that we are meeting some productivity goal.  The specifics typically are set by management.

What does productivity mean in retirement which the external criteria disappears?  What does it mean in later life post- jobs and post-careers?

Our inner switch does not go off just because we don’t have a “real job” or because we are not earning a salary.

We may tell ourselves it is time to savor the pleasures of free time, yet many of us still experience that gnawing sense of guilt, a by-product of not producing.  Where then do we find the self-worth of being a “productive American?”

Several women who are part of Project Renewment®, a forum for career women to discuss issues related to their next chapter in life, shed some light on redefining what it means to be productive in retirement.

“Productivity now implies accomplishing anything that is important, making a difference and working to benefit others,” said one member.  It amounts to winding up with new kinds of products and outcomes.”

These would include painting, acting and photography, producing an opera or even cleaning a closet.  Although, few of the women believed that “closet productivity” had any long-term value.

The Project Renewment women identified a shift — from believing external circumstances must somehow define how productive or useful a person is – to defining that value for oneself.   They believe that nourishing one’s soul could be a guilt-free experience.

Many in the group reported that spending time with their elderly parents or grandchildren was productive.  Caring for a sick friend was productive as was time spent walking, doing yoga or Pilates.  Keeping healthy was a productive mission and activity.

Franz Kafka, the noted Czech-born writer, had a different take on being productive.   He wrote, “Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.”

The values we carry over from our work to retirement may be the same.  It’s just that they are expressed differently.  Productivity is still important. What changes is the role of others in dictating the definition.

This takes us to a larger and equally important subject of how we define the life stage between adulthood and old age. We are living in this new stage with no name or expectations.

Books, lectures and research are being devoted to this subject. And the reason?  Boomers are pushing to add a new part to the traditional stages of youth, adolescence and adulthood.  This new stage is not only for boomers but for those who precede them.

Perhaps there will be less of a disconnect when we compare how we live with the expectations of this new stage of life.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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