Susan Stauber influenced hundreds of youngsters passing through her elementary school classroom for 32 years before her 2001 retirement.
For such individuals who spend a career in which others look to them for mentoring, an unsettling void can arise when that role disappears. That’s part of the reason Ms. Stauber volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, through which she has befriended and advised a teen who has battled various personal troubles on her way to graduating from high school this spring.
“It still gives me purpose that I am hopefully making a difference in the world somehow,” said Ms. Stauber of Crafton. “Just the fact that I’m in my 60s doesn’t mean I have to quit.”
While the former Montour schoolteacher is finding fulfillment as a volunteer mentor, a new research study finds a societal paradox affecting many empty nesters and others leaving the workforce: The people most suited to giving advice and desirous of doing it after acquiring a lifetime of experience are the ones with the fewest outlets for dispensing their wisdom.
The study by University of Toronto researchers, which appears in this month’s Social Psychology Quarterly, found that people in their 60s were about twice as likely as younger adults to lack anyone to whom they dispense advice. They’ve often lost the work roles in which they guided others, and their now-grown children have reached the stage of making their own decisions.
And yet, those older people who do give advice — whether to colleagues, family, friends, neighbors or strangers — report much more satisfaction from it than is the case for those in their 20s through 50s who do it more frequently.
“This association between advice giving and life meaning is not evident for other age groups,” said Markus H. Schafer, an assistant professor of sociology whose findings were based on a 2006 survey of 2,583 U.S. adults. “Conventional age norms suggest that the ideal mentor or advice-giver is someone who has a lot of life experience. 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.”
Movies and books commonly depict cultures in which the old tribal leaders or village elders are counted on for their sage counsel, but that’s hardly the modern American way. It’s probably even less so now than in the recent past, due to the easy availability of so much more information.
A new mom or dad might get child-rearing advice today over the Internet instead of from their own parents, especially when they live far away, as is increasingly the case. Young people who are more likely than older peers to excel at technology in the modern workplace have less need of colleagues’ coaching than in traditional occupations such as law, medicine and teaching. Grandparents don’t see their grandchildren as much as in prior eras, and other intergenerational interaction is hardly widespread.
“With existence of a lot more education and urbanization, young people especially are concentrated in areas where they might not have as much exposure to older people, as opposed to close-knit communities of the past,” Mr. Schafer said.
He suggested society can add equilibrium to the advice field with adoption by schools, churches and other civic groups of grass-roots programs that bring older and younger generations together.
That happens to a certain extent already, including in general volunteer programs such as those of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and Big Brothers Big Sisters, where older adults like Ms. Stauber are deemed just as valuable as other volunteers despite a wider age gap from those being helped. Some other local efforts, meanwhile, specifically seek to take advantage of older adults’ experience.
About 50 volunteers middle-aged and up serve as volunteer consultants to nonprofit organizations through the Executive Service Corps of Robert Morris University’s Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management.
Ellen Estomin, 69, of Shadyside is a former Pittsburgh city schools administrator who is one of those in the program helping nonprofit groups’ boards with strategic planning, governing procedures and other issues.
“I don’t think of it as so much dispensing advice,” she said. “It’s really about empowering them to be the best they can be for their communities.”
The Oasis program matches individuals 50 and older as tutors to students in grades K-4 in the Pittsburgh and Woodland Hills school districts. The program has 122 tutors at present, and director John Spehar said the bonds formed are important for the adults as well as the students.
“Something I hear over and over is they want to give back to the community, and they’re looking to continue to have a purpose now that they’re no longer in the workforce,” he said.
The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program operated by Pittsburgh Cares has a goal of putting 500 volunteers age 55 or older into a variety of causes served in the community, typically as part of work orchestrated by other nonprofit groups. Director Riley Baker said the program is about one-quarter of the way to reaching that goal through participation of individuals such as Dave Cassidy, 67, of the Central North Side.
The retired advertising salesman has volunteered for the Salvation Army and Global Links and is providing communications and publicity guidance to the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program itself. It’s all part of what he says is needed to keep him motivated instead of just doing house chores or watching TV.
“For me, I wouldn’t call it important — it’s vital,” Mr. Cassidy stressed.
Older adults looking to do mentoring or other volunteer work may always dial 2-1-1 to reach United Way for information about potential opportunities, but among other options they may also call the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program at 412-471-2114; Oasis intergenerational tutoring at 412-393-7648; the Executive Service Corps at 412-397-6000; Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council at 412-393-7600; and Big Brothers Big Sisters at 412-363-6100.