What would Robert Butler do?

In September I had the privilege of meeting with Bob Butler, a pioneering gerontologist perhaps best known for coining the term “ageism” in 1968, whose work introduced the concepts of “productive aging” and “successful aging.” Nowadays, finding the term “productive aging” too commodified, he’s switched to “productive engagement,” which he defines as “any productive activity, including even taking care of yourself.”


I talked with Dr. Butler at the International Longevity Center, of which he is the President and CEO, and I’ll be back to interview him in depth. I introduced myself as a writer and an activist with the goal of tackling ageism in the workforce the way my previous book addressed sexism in marriage. What I hoped to take away from this first meeting was his sense of how this project could best serve that end.



“I’ve always been a proponent that as long as people want to work, ageism should not deprive them of that opportunity,” said Butler. “They should be able to work for pay, but it’s still work, even if it’s as a volunteer. There’s even what’s called ‘paid volunteering,’ where the employers cover your expenses.” Paid or unpaid, the work must be predictable, or it gives no value to the institution, he points out. “Any way that works is OK with me. We know that people remain in the workforce, who have something to get up for something that matters to them, live longer and better lives than those who don’t. So it’s positive in terms of quality of life.”



Butler takes issue, however, with the equation of paid work with productivity, the notion that “if you’re not working, you ain’t no good — and you’re not young enough to do it,” as he puts it. He finds value in the day-to-day effort to “take care of yourself, such as improving your balance, doing stuff to be independent citizen — and I’m not condemning of people who can’t take care of themselves,” he adds. “That bears upon the concept of productivity, though not in our usual terms.



Where the rubber hits the road for Butler is the dismal economics of growing old in America. “There’s enormous poverty at older ages,” he points out. “Nearly 25% of people over 65 are living on $38 or less a day.” Those statistics are from the U. S. Census Bureau’s 2006 “Official Poverty Tables, which are derived from the 2007 Current Population Survey; Butler handed me a copy on my way out. “Caregivers and home health aides are excluded even from minimum wage, and for them it’s a triple whammy: racism, sexism and ageism.”



The take-away: I need to track down people who are still working because they have to, not just because they want to. And to focus on the particular disadvantages that women face.

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