Watch Out for the Busy Ethic for Retirement Success

What is retirement success and satisfaction? Talk to just about any retiree long enough and you are likely to hear phrases such as: “I’m busier now than I was when I was working,” or “My volunteer work has me really busy.” Isn’t retirement supposed to be a time of freedom and leisure? So what accounts for all the talk about busyness?

Busy Ethic Header Photo

To explain this “busyness” phenomenon, sociologist David Ekerdt coined the term “the busy ethic,” an extension of the work ethic that follows us into retirement. “The [American] work ethic historically has identified work with virtue, and has held up for esteem a conflation of traits and habit such as diligence, initiative, temperance, industriousness, competitiveness, self-reliance, and the capacity for deferred gratification” (Ekerdt, 1986).

A Collision of Expectations about Retirement Success

So how do our traditional notions about retirement square with the work ethic? The short answer is they don’t, and at least three factors can explain this collision of expectations.

First is something that might be termed the “generativity gap.” Physically if not chronologically, we are retiring “younger” than our parents did. The average American at age 65 can look forward to about 20 years of life expectancy in reasonably good health. As healthy vital adults, most of us share a hard-wired psychological need to be generative, to give back to the next generation on some level (Erikson, 1994).

Second is what Robert Atchley calls Continuity Theory, a well-researched phenomenon that finds, in broad strokes, that there is a great deal of consistency among retirees’ values, outlooks, desires and behaviors pre-retirement and during retirement (Atchley, 1989). There is psychological safety and comfort in having our retirement worlds, outlooks and activities not change dramatically from when we were working. Ekerdt suggests that the busy ethic makes the transition to retirement easier and more palatable by providing “moral continuity” between our former work lives and our new supposedly role-less role.

Third, the work ethic is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; it’s part of the unspoken social contract that surrounds us and envelops our thinking. As part of our collective social identity, we all share in a “conspiracy” of sorts to keep the work ethic, and by extension, the busy ethic alive.

Ekerdt points to three conspirators that help perpetuate the busy ethic. Who’s first on this list? Retirees. “They participate in the busy ethic to the degree that they subscribe to the desirability of an active, engaged lifestyle.” He further suggests that “in honoring the busy ethic, exactly what one does to keep busy is secondary to the fact that one purportedly is busy.” In other words, it’s important to be seen as busy, regardless of the fruitfulness of the busyness. There’s also an unconscious game at work, where periods of activity “pay for” periods of leisure. A period of work or busyness justifies a round of golf or some couch time in front of the TV.

Busy Ethic Co-Conspirators

A second set of co-conspirators is friends, relatives and coworkers, whose conversations with the retiree soon find their way back to the topic of activity. Among the non-retirees, because of curiosity, or in an attempt to relate to the retiree, keep the focus on what they can relate to – productivity. In their defense, they may also be concerned that the retiree will eventually stagnate. Stagnation is the counter polarity to generativity among adults, according to psychologist Erik Erikson. (There will be an upcoming post on the generativity gap.)

Ekerdt calls a third group of co-conspirators “institutional conservators,” namely marketers. The media continually bombards us with the theme of “active retirement.” Busyness is portrayed as a virtue, even in retirement. Among the institutional conservators, Ekerdt also singles out the gerontology community – professionals that support adults in “successful aging.” One of the foundations of successful aging is the “activity theory,” the notion that “the older person who ages optimality is a person who stays active and manages to resist the shrinkage of his social world” (Havighurst, Neugarten, & Tobin, 1968). (In his article, Ekerdt was dismissive of activity theory, but there’s a large body of research that supports it – studies that indicate staying engaged does lead to better health.)

Be the Architect of Your Life’s Next Chapter

With this post, we wanted to shine the spotlight on the busy ethic because it relates to two strongly held beliefs — the work ethic, and the notion that good health is tied to wholesome, productive living. The busy ethic is a powerful moral force. In our quest for continuity as we enter the retirement phase, there’s a strong desire to, as Ekerdt says, “integrate existing beliefs and values about work into a new status that constitutes a withdrawal from work.” In short, there’s a public discourse about the value of work that we carry with us into retirement, reinforced by the messages we receive from our social circles as well as the media. As the architects of our life’s next chapter, it’s up to us to recognize these environmental influences and decide whether or not they should influence on our decision-making. Our goal is not to convince you that you should ignore the busy ethic and become a couch potato. Quite to the contrary, our goal is to point out an important social discourse that places a claim on the freedom that we should enjoy in retirement. Recognizing this discourse gives us the power to choose how to manage it in our own thinking as well as in the conversations that we have with others.

What Others are Saying About Retirement Success

10 Secrets to a Successful Retirement (Next Avenue)

The Eight Keys to a Successful Retirement Life (Retirement Lifestyle Center)


Atchley, R. C. (1989). A Continuity Theory of Normal Aging. The Gerontologist, 29(2), 183-190.
Ekerdt, D. J. (1986). The Busy Ethic: Moral Continuity Between Work and Retirement. The Gerontologist, 26(3), 239-244.
Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity and the life cycle (Reissue edition.). New York: Norton.
Havighurst, R. J., Neugarten, B. L., & Tobin, S. S. (1968). Disengagement and patterns of aging. In B. L. Neugarten (Ed.), Middle age and aging: A reader in social psychology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.