For older adults, providing advice helps make their lives meaningful

picture-frame-1201386_1280Written by Markus H. Schafer and Laura Upenieks

A new study reveals that individuals in their 60s who give advice to a broad range of people tend to see their lives as especially meaningful. At the same time, this happens to be the age when opportunities for dispensing advice become increasingly scarce.

According to the study, which appears in the March 2016 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, individuals in their 60s who report giving advice to a wide variety of people—to family members, friends, neighbors, and strangers—see their lives as highly meaningful, while adults in that age group who dispense advice to fewer types of people are much less likely to report high life meaning.

“This association between advice giving and life meaning is not evident for other age groups,” said Markus H. Schafer, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and the lead author of the study. “Overall, we interpret these findings to suggest that the developmental demands of late midlife—particularly the desire to contribute to others’ welfare and the fear of feeling ‘stagnant’—fit poorly with the social and demographic realties for this segment of the life course. Just when giving advice seems to be most important, opportunities for doing so seem to wane.”

Titled, “The Age-Graded Nature of Advice: Distributional Patterns and Implications for Life Meaning,” the study relies on a nationally representative sample of 2,583 U.S. adults who were 18 and above when they were surveyed in 2006.

Schafer and his co-author Laura Upenieks, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Toronto, found that 21 percent of people in their 60s and 27 percent of people 70 or older reported giving advice to no one in the previous year. By comparison, only about 10 percent of people in their 20s (this group also included 18 and 19-year-olds), 30s, 40s, and 50s said they gave no advice in the past year.

“Conventional age norms suggest that the ideal mentor or advice-giver is someone who has a lot of life experience,” Schafer said. “However, compared to their younger counterparts, older adults occupy fewer social roles, are less socially active, and interact with a more restricted range of people. So, while the average 65-year-old may well have more wisdom than the average 30-year-old, demographic and social structure factors seem to provide the latter with more opportunity for actually dispensing advice.”

Some scholars have argued that the essence of mattering—the idea that one is meaningful and consequential to other people—is most under threat during late-middle age when many people retire and enter the “empty nest” phase of life, according to Schafer.

“The mattering perspective helps explain why it is this period of the life span, in particular, when it is important for people to feel like they can still have influence on others through actions such as giving advice,” Schafer said.

In terms of the study’s implications, Schafer said, “The results should prompt reflection on the social fabric of American communities and how late-middle age adults fit into the picture. Our findings underscore the importance of giving older adults occasions to share their wisdom and life experiences. Schools, churches, civic organizations, and other community groups could consider how to facilitate intergenerational mentorship experiences and to creatively enable more older adults to be advice-givers.”

Implications for Mentors and Mentoring Programs

As adults age, one way to help support their connections and interactions with other groups is to recruit them to serve as mentors. Mentoring provides an excellent opportunity for older adults to remain connected to their community in a meaningful way and also provide young mentees an avenue through which to benefit from a lifetime’s worth of experience. By utilizing the complementing skills of engaged listening and advice-giving, older adults can provide a supportive resource with the extra positive of decades of perspective on issues that may not be readily apparent to an adolescent or young adult.

Based on the article: The Age-Graded Nature of Advice: Distributional Patterns and Implications for Life Meaning


Social Psychology Quarterly