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Created: August 7, 2003
Latest Update: August 7, 2003

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Index of Topics on Site Retirement and Disengagement

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, August 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

On Thursday, August 7, 2003, in the Wall Street Journal, Sarah McBride wrote: Gray Area: In Corporate Asia, A Looming Crisis Over Succession. The sub-heading reads: "As Empire Founders Age, Many Fail to Lay Proper Plans; 'You Want to Get Rid of Me.' "

Years and years ago, when I studied gerontology at the University of Southern California, we spoke of disengagement theory. According to that idealized description, older people were happy to step aside, to give up some of their taxing connections to the fast-paced corporate and family worlds. They viewed this slow backing off as a comfortable and natural way to let the young take over. Well, it made us all feel good that Henry and Mary just wanted to sit back and relax in their rocking chairs. That is, until the data started pouring in.

Sarah Mc Bride draws our attention to the fact that our identities are inextricably caught up in the work we do, whether that is paid work, or family work.

"Often Asian corporate chiefs are even more reluctant than their U.S. counterparts to discuss who should replace them. "It's kind of taboo," says Raymond So, a finance professor who studies the issue at Chineses University of Hong Kong. To the founder, "it means, 'Hey, you want to get rid of me.' " McBride, WSJ. at p. A 6.

One of the problems with disengagement theory as it was promulgated in the early 70s is that these are no longer the early 70s. The world is different. He/she who alienates himself/herself by actually breaking connections is totally out of the loop and soon loses any titular power of answerability he/she ever had. The head of household who relinquishes income loses the titular authority to dictate monologic non-answerability that the power of that income gave. The mother who relinquishes former household duties to younger family members also loses the titular power of monologic non-answerability when the family no longer depends on her for food, clothing, bare necessities of everyday living. And it doesn't matter if she only supervised such tasks; as the supervisor she had titular authority that was recognized by the family.

With the loss of titular authority that enables monologic non-answerability comes the loss of respect in a community that relies on monologic non-answerability. And with that loss of respect comes loss of self-esteem and identity, causing the elders to encounter the same situation that led minorities to drop out of school when there was no attempt to build meaningful relationships that would tend to empower them and keep them in school.

The next time you call your mother on 10-10-whatever for 3 cents a minute and a 39 cent connect charge, and she rants that you never call her for fifteen minutes (current TV ad run so often I've memorized pieces of it), slow down for a second and consider that this call was maybe the first utterance in a while to which she had any possibility of answer. And what did you utter? A phone call. No specifics. Just "Hi, Mom, I called." So what's the answer supposed to be? Acceptance in silence? Read McBride's WSJ article. I hear traces of "you want to get rid of me." She's basically telling you disengagement theory sucks. So why don't you try answering that? Give her a real utterance to respond to: offer her a tiny specific detail out of your life, and listen to one or two of hers. Go ahead, try it. It's an aesthetic process. It feels good. And you get the creative product of a happier bond with your mother.

My personal suggestion is that you stay away from "life review" theory, too. Everytime my husband starts that, I suggest a strong tranquilizer (or a strong drink, or a moment of prayer, according to your preferences). Unless you're dealing with a sunny personality, life review leads to "why didn't I?" and "I should have. . . ." both of which are places that I'd rather not go without a trained therapist on hand. Try instead: "Do you remember . . . " and some of the funniest memories you have left.


  • Slide Show on Aging By Dr. Osei Darkwa at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This offers a good quick overview, with disengagement on slide 28 of 56. It gives the one-sentence explanation: "A gradual disengagement of the individaul from the society." Gee, I sure hope there was a good lecture to go with that. Use this slide show for a quickie guide to the whole field of aging. Kind of like the table of contents of a book. Good for late at night when you're too tired to read much.

  • Life Review and Disengagement Theory By Linda Woolf.

    Discussion Questions

    1. Does disengagement theory describe the elderly as going gently into that dark night?

      Consider Sarah McBride's article. Consider also that earned status titles are badges that compose a large chunk of our identity, and that giving them up means giving up pieces of our identity. Depending on the importance of those pieces to the whole, we're not going to give them up easily.

    2. Is there a parallel in the family to the problem CEO's seem to have with turning over their power and titles to the next generation?

      Consider family squabbles over "respect" and family members' "Oh, let me," that usually means "I can do it better, anyway." My husand's father always pushed his way into packing anything that had to be secured with paper and tape and string. He could do it better than his son. To this day, my husband is helpless at packing anything, even though his father has been gone for years. We call this "learned incompetency."