An Overview of Havinghursts Activity Theory

Readjusting Attitudes: Havighurst’s Activity Theory

If you were told of a remarkable theory proposing that older people who stay active tend to achieve greater satisfaction, besides living longer lives, it would be a good guess that you would agree, except about the remarkable part. It’s hard, perhaps, to envision such an idea could once have been revolutionary, if not actually counter-intuitive, to most people’s way of thinking, even though such is in fact the case.

Therefore, some context may be in order.

First, an overdue introduction with proper credit to the proponent of said remarkable theory; Robert James HavigHurst was an illustrious researcher. His many works and theories, expounding upon his ideas in the fields of Human Development, and Educational Theory, justified his induction into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame. He was born on July 5, 1900, more than a century ago.  

One of the things Economic Historians have noted when taking the learned lens of their particular field of study and holding it up against the panorama of changes that have occurred in the American workforce in the last century is the large decline of male workers 65+ employed between the latter 1800s when compared to the early part of the 21st century.

The difference is staggering, amounting to a nearly phenomenal 60%. Such variance suggests those 65+ workers are electing to stop working in greater numbers as the decades pass. Naturally, this is known to be true. It makes all the more sense given that retirement, both the ideological concept, as well as the government support which affords its existence, did not appear on the scene until the 1880s. That was when Germany first introduced it. For most other countries, jumping onto the ‘retirement’ bandwagon did not occur until at earliest the 19th century, with many others getting on board as late as the 1900s.

Another important shift to occur in the 19th and 20th centuries was the gradual induction of women into the higher paid reaches of the workforce. Prior to this period a large majority of the female workforce was restricted to lower paid labor jobs.

Such an overview as the above makes it clear  Havighurst was born on the cusp of societal change in many arenas. Before his time it was not at all unusual for people to work until they died, or  until they simply could not work any more. Choices, like working just because one wanted to, or conversely, taking time off to simply enjoy life; these ideas would hardly have passed as widely accepted ‘givens’  prior to Havighurst’s time period.

Greater educational opportunities for women, leading to higher paying jobs, the widespread option to stop working while one was still young enough to take up new interests; these were some of the changes Havighurst saw during his long 60+ years of study and research.

Into this arena of burgeoning social change arose a young man with a yen to make a name for himself in the scientific sphere. Havighurst published journal papers dealing with anatomical structure prior to electing to follow in the footsteps of his parents, both teachers. Once bent toward a specific inclination, however, he was not a man to let the grass grow beneath his feet. Havighurst had acquired a full professorship by the 1940’s, as well as a place on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Human Development.

A prolific student of education, aging, and the processes inherent to both, it is both amusing and striking to note Havighurst had so many written works one particular student was inspired to fill a wheelbarrow full of them. He then proceeded  to wheel it into the banquet hall on the celebration of Havighurst’s 65th birthday.

It is between these two life posts, specifically Havighurst’s 1941 appointment as professor of education and executive secretary to the university of Chicago’s Committee of Human Development and the appearance of that wheelbarrow, that the birth of Havighurst’s remarkable activity theory occurred.

It did not emerge in a vacuum, however, as Havighurst is noted for developing a whole age by age developmental theory, besides. This is not unlike the noted theoretician, Erik Erikson. However, Erikson’s theory was heavily influenced by his psychoanalytical background. Erikson’s theory proposes existential questions and areas of angst and crisis specific to each age group.

Havighurst’s, theory, on the other hand, divides age groups by proposed tasks to be learned, many as utilitarian as crawling and selecting a mate. Although others propose more complicated developments, such as acquiring a moral code and a sense of civic responsibility.

Between the 50s and 60s, right around the publication of the activity theory, would have seen the beginning of Havighurst’s own middle years. Having no doubt observed a host of social change along the way, as well as spent time and energy developing a self-reflective tool for understanding the different periods of his life, it is only fitting  Havighurst, along with his colleagues, would create a simple, yet profound, theory while Havighurst looked forward to his own soon-arriving later years.

The theory proposed by Havighurst and his associates was that activity is a key component to what could be constituted as a successful, that is a satisfying old age. Havighurst maintained that a good sense of self-esteem hinged on older persons continuing an active involvement with the world, via intellectual or physical modes made no difference, as long as the older person continued being engaged with others, learning and evolving new interests and roles as old ones were lost.

Put succinctly, the maintenance of regular roles and activities along with the acquisition of new ones was the best way, as Havighurst perceived it, to reach one’s optimal years. Moreover, although the theory applied to elders it had within it a plea to society at large too, not to limit the elderly by enforcing their isolation, or presuming them capable of less than others without evidence.

Havighurst’s theory was radically different from a concurrently developed theory, the disengagement theory. This theory proposed that the aging process itself created a gradual disinclination to be social in the elderly, that withdrawal from activity is not only a natural, but a beneficial consequence of aging, allowing for a natural pivot of power from generation to generation, while freeing elders from the encumbrance both of needing to be involved, as well as the need to keep up their previously held roles. Letting go, according to this theory was something expected on both the part of society towards the elderly, as well as on the part of the elderly towards society.

Some could espouse the disengagement theory, citing its clear acceptance of the limitations of the older years as dignified. Others might describe it as bleak and a way to put the elderly in a ‘box.’ But Havighurst’s theory has had its share of detractors too.

Some have suggested that because Havighurst advocated maintenance of what might be deemed a middle aged existence for elders, he was thereby advocating a look the other way approach, one were elders denied the  encroachments of various limiting factors that inevitably accompany old age. These detractors point to elderly drivers who refuse to relinquish their licenses, as an example of those trying to live active lives in the face of real limitations, as if Havighurst was espousing unsafe or unhealthy behaviors.

A quick glance at Havighurst’s developmental theory should dispel that notion, as Havighurst has listed among those tasks designated as specific to the 60+ crowd the task of adjusting to the physical limitations of one’s older years.

Other detractors suggest Havighurst wasn’t just advocating activity, but literally prescribing it, like a pill. The suggestion, in such a case, is that inactivity viewed through the scope of Havighurst’s theory could be considered maladaptive. Elders isolated by choice, or other factors, might feel as if they are aging unsuccessfully.  

In defense of that it should be noted that Havighurst and his colleagues also developed the continuity theory, which proposes that basic personality traits, which are those attitudes and ways of reacting specific to a given individual, tend to remain constant throughout that individual’s life.

Sweet people remain sweet, while curmudgeons remain curmudgeons. One would assume then that those folks who never really cared what anyone thought will go right on not caring, while those who are more sensitive will continue to be so. With so much common sense in his ideas as stated it’s likely Havighurst expected more than a modicum to used in their application.

Today, of course, people recognize the multiple health benefits of activity over inactivity more than ever, just as they realize that Havighurst was definitely onto something with his activity theory.