What does it mean to be “productive?”

Recently, perhaps in guilty compensation for a vacation of utter sloth, I’ve been mulling over the notion of productivity. Bound up in the American veneration of the work ethic, it’s prime redress for that overarching fear in old age:  becoming a burden. In my interview criteria I define it as “doing or making something on a regular schedule,” laying bare my assumption that most people (or at least most of my readers) aspire to lifelong productivity and that this is a good thing.  

 After all, “Aren’t we all supposed to aspire toward ‘Active Aging?’” as ethicist H.R. Moody asks in his Human Values in Aging newsletter. Perhaps not, he suggests, quoting from Less by Marc Lesser: “Too often we mistakenly believe that doing less makes us lazy and results in a lack of productivity. Instead, doing less helps us savor what we do accomplish…” In this era of competitive multitasking, it’s deceptively easy to equate RPM with actual progress. Couldn’t the perspective and deceleration of late life inform individual decisions about what constitutes “productivity” and what value to assign it?

In the June, 2009 issue of More magazine, writer Joyce Carol Oates movingly describes her 65-year-old father’s transition from tool-and-dye designer to college student. She points out that “In the latter years of our lives, some of us will continue to be ‘productive’ — if we’ve been productive previously — and others will not. My father went from being ceaselessly ‘productive’ to finally learning to enjoy what others produced. From his life of sheer utility, he’d cultivated a life of contemplation and appreciation.” The wildly prolific Oates aspires to the same. Rejecting the view of an artist friend who felt an unproductive life to be not worth living, she writes, “Surely it’s enough for us to admire and support the products of others — literature, music, theater, film, the vast world of culture — if we cease to be productive ourselves. How much better, more generous…” Was plowing through a stack of novels on the beach last week productive? Is that the right question, or even a good one?

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