Since its founding in 2005 with a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Boston College’s Center on Aging & Work has provided a strong, informed voice advocating for our nation’s aging workforce. A recent study found that 7 in 10 Baby Boomers plan to work past the age of 65; the work of the Center aims to make those experiences more available and more rewarding.
With a stated mission “to promote quality and choice of paid and unpaid work across the lifespan, with a particular focus on older adults,” the Center melds practice with the ivory tower, pursuing its goals through research studies, collaborations with organizations and business leaders, and engagement with an interdisciplinary network of scholars and practitioners.
Recently, the Center’s co-director Jacquelyn James sat down with Innovate to discuss the Center’s history, current work, and goals for the future. Below, some of the highlights from that conversation.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today Dr. James. You’ve been a member of the Center’s team since its inception 12 years ago. Tell us a little bit about what it’s meant to be a part of this successful enterprise at Boston College.
Jacquelyn James: It’s really been a fantastic experience. My colleague Jennifer Swanberg and I conducted a study of employees in the retail sector as part of the Center’s founding grant, and since then, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of our expanding influence, first under the astute direction of Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes. I’ve been honored to be able to co-lead the current chapter of the Center since 2014.
It’s really been a remarkable journey. Over the first ten years of our existence, we published over 100 scholarly articles, were mentioned in the media more than 1,000 times, and conducted a wide range of major research studies. I truly believe that through all of this work and exposure, we made major inroads in increasing the prominence of aging workforce issues so that today, it’s become a central focus of those aspiring to understand what in fact constitutes a healthy society.
Since Tay McNamara and I assumed leadership of the Center in 2014, I’m proud to say that we’ve continued to follow in the formidable footsteps of Pitt-Catsouphes. We’ve managed to secure close to $1 million in federal funding during that time and published 30 academic papers, while pursuing novel initiatives that I hope will outlast even the life of the Center itself.
Tell us more about one of these new projects, the Sloan Research Network on Aging and Work.
JJ: Absolutely. It used to be that many viewed the term “Aging & Work” as an oxymoron, but thanks largely to the work of the Center, that’s no longer the case. Still, there’s much work to do to address how to best serve the population of older Americans who are still in the workforce, as well as those unemployed who are looking to be hired. To do this, we must confront the problem from a multidisciplinary perspective. For this reason, I approached the Sloan Foundation with an idea to develop an international network of researchers and practitioners across fields with a shared interest in this issue. We were fortunate to receive funding for three years. In the first two years, we’ve built the Network to include more than 170 members from 15 different disciplines and 14 countries. We are busy working with these incredible colleagues and supporting significant events to encourage collaboration among them.
The Center hosted a Fall Institute on Aging and Work in collaboration with the Harvard University Center for Population and Development Studies, and most recently, an all-day special session at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual meeting. This coming summer, look for our two-day pre-conference at the IAGG World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatric entitled Translating Research on Aging & Work into Practice.
What are some of the other projects the Center is working on?
JJ: We’re very lucky that the Center also includes a group of professors who are leaders in their field, including BC Social Work’s Jim Lubben, Christina Matz-Costa, and Erika Sabbath, as well as our esteemed co-director McNamara.
Lubben continues to be a leader in developing the Grand Challenges for Social Work, and is often in demand regarding his Social Network Scale; Matz-Costa is currently at work on a project to learn more about developing individually-tailored interventions aimed at promoting an active lifestyle in later life; and Sabbath is engaged in a prestigious grant with Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health on workplace health and safety.
McNamara has been an intrepid co-director, and continues to conduct cutting-edge research that leads to practical tools for those individuals providing interventions to the older Americans that need them. Her Workforce Benchmarking Tool for employers, to name one, has been championed by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) as a valuable baseline from which companies can build upon in developing systems to support an aging workforce.
Contrary to certain popular opinion, companies really do have a lot to gain from fostering productive relationships with older workers. Tell us more about some of the defining traits about the special group.
JJ: Later life used to to be seen as a time for rest and relaxation, and that is still true to some extent. But gerontologists are beginning to suggest that there are multiple benefits to mixing leisure with purposeful activities. The first, most basic thing to remember, is that the Golden Years used to last a decade, maybe two, tops. Now, Americans routinely live 20-30 years after what has traditionally been considered retirement age. That’s a long time, and even for those who can do it, it’s important that we reflect upon whether it’s even wise to go on “vacation” for such an extended period of time. There are real health benefits to staying engaged, and staying engaged with one’s community ease the burdens on society, and provide real opportunities for growth. The Baby Boomer generation, for example, is the most educated generation of older adults in history, and it’s time for us to work together to see how individuals, and society on the whole, can best benefit from their experience, energy, and skill.
I’m reminded of a great quote from a fellow psychologist that helps to illustrate this opportunity, namely that, “we’re all basically dogsledders and we’re much happier when we’re just pulling a little.” The reality is, that, for many of us in later life, there is a lot of time to fill, and in the world in which we live, there’s a lot of need. We need to continue to convey that older Americans represent a vast group of people with a multitude of talents to offer to the world—they just need the opportunities and the will to do so.