Bill Thomas wrote a book back in 2004, titled, “What Are Old People For?”  It is a question that has prodded me to think about aging in different ways ever since I first read it.

This past week I made a presentation at my local senior center that has its roots in that question. In that presentation, I shared a new concept: Usefulness Quotient. In exploring this concept, I followed a slightly different version of Thomas’ original question. My question is this: “What if we are meant to be used differently as we age?”  Before I share my definition of “usefulness quotient”, it’s important to define some other terms first.

At its core, our individual usefulness quotient is about both being productive and being useful. But these are not interchangeable terms.  

Productive or Useful: Which Is a Better Descriptor?

Productive (adj): 1)  having the power of producing (generative, creative); 2) producing readily or abundantly (fertile); 3) causing, bringing about; 4) economics: producing goods and services having exchange value

Useful (adj): 1) being of use or service; serving some purpose; advantageous, helpful, or of good effect; 2) of practical use, as for doing work; producing material results; supplying common needs

In applying these terms across the lifespan, it seemed clear to me that productivity is anchored in the earlier stages of life. It drops off after retirement. After that benchmark, we are not expected to be productive, and least as aging is viewed currently.

What Do Old People Produce?

Just asking this question of myself, I realized that it made me feel, well – useless. When I was active in my career, I was being used well. I was teaching, I was doing therapy, and I was active in groups that were influencing others.

As I thought about this more, I realized that much of who I am followed the generational expectations I grew up with. The expectation that as a child I would produce good grades, as a young adult I would make friends and learn skills, as an adult I would have a family, a career, and be active in my community.

Peaking and Then What?

But then there is that peak – that point when my productivity (societally speaking) starts to decline. The common benchmark is retirement. After that point, the culture doesn’t expect me to produce any longer. Which left me pondering my very real experience that I am still capable of producing things, but maybe not with the frequency I once did or in the way I did before.

That’s when it occurred to me that maybe I was meant to be used in a different way at this stage of my life. Maybe I was meant to take my skills, talents, and experiences and package them differently and see if there were new ways for me to be useful.

Different Intelligences

I am sure you are all familiar with the IQ – this is how so many of us were categorized in terms of how much schooling we pursued or which level of job we applied for. It has been the granddaddy of identifying smart people for a long time. What was clear to me, was that intelligence as a measure of usefulness, really didn’t apply to this stage of life. So, I looked for other approaches.

Back in 1995, Daniel Goleman introduced the notion of “emotional intelligence”. His research suggested that there is more to “intelligence” than mathematics, spelling, and taking tests. Goleman defined emotional intelligence as the ability to perceive, interpret, demonstrate, control, evaluate, and use emotions to communicate with and relate to others effectively and constructively

Other researchers took up the baton and developed theories around social intelligence (the ability to “read” others, work cooperatively, understand and know how to exert influence), and adversity quotients (the capacity to learn from, integrate, and work through adverse events in life and ability to endure). But as I read through different articles, what stuck out for me was the lack of research on how any of these intelligences applied to aging adults, especially those who continued to be functional well into their 80s and 90s.

Usefulness Quotient

Seeing the void, I jumped in and now offer you the following as a possible way of answering the question, “How are we meant to be used as we age?”  Here is my working definition of a “new” intelligence:

Usefulness Quotient (You-Q) refers to your capacity to contribute your ideas, values, efforts, and vision to the community(ies) you participate in. This may include volunteering, working, sharing, teaching, creating things, growing things, offering ideas, sharing stories, or sitting and listening, that, as a result, enhance your life and the lives of those around you.

Value, Valued, and Valuable

It is clear to me that aging is not considered valuable by many in our current world. Aging in our nation is like the copper penny; it will always have value (1 cent), but it is neither valued or considered valuable.

What if you were essential?  What if your “job” was to be the legacy-holder?  The keeper of what had been passed down to you and altered and adapted to meet the different demands you faced in your lifetime?  What if you intentionally created your legacy?  Not just furniture, jewelry, or money, but values and ideas, stories of over-coming challenges, finding love, learning persistence and how to let go?

Re-purposing Ourselves

I came across this photograph and it opened my eyes (and heart) to a different way of looking at what I am meant to be doing. This old ladder, no longer useful as a means of climbing up and down, now provides beauty and utility as a bookshelf.

I thought to myself, “What would it be like if I was valued for who I am and not what I do?”   I believe the opportunity exists for all of us to value ourselves differently at this stage of life. In doing so, you may notice that you have skills, talents, experiences that may be useful in addressing one or more of the pressing issues of our time. But it does require reflecting on the role(s) you play in the various groups you are a part of, and considering whether there are additional, new ways for you to contribute.

Working Definitions and Exploration

I am quite attached to this notion of a “You-Q”. It is still in its early stages, but I am going to continue to explore what it means and how it might be applied to this stage of life. I welcome your thoughts and ideas about this. Please feel free to share them with me:

6 responses to “What is your “Usefulness Quotient”?”

  1. Tim Gieseke MD, CMD Avatar
    Tim Gieseke MD, CMD

    In retirement, I’ve had more time to participate in medical projects that move from concept to implementation. When I was working, I’d float ideas & concepts, but often they didn’t go anywhere. Now, the harder implementation work in collaboration with people still working is starting to bear fruit. Though this doesn’t generate income, It works well for me in retirement and is valuable.

  2. Berkeley Fuller-Lewis Avatar
    Berkeley Fuller-Lewis

    Thank you for yet another provocative blog. As a lifelong “artist” (i.e., one who’s “usefulness” is to observe and witness “real” reality, while celebrating and creating beauty “merely” for its own sake) — becoming “older” has NOT occasioned any fraught dismay about no longer BEING USED — (i.e. by society, for ITS purposes). For, as an artist (poet, writer, editor, graphic designer, pianist) ALL ALONG I have (according to this shallow and exploitive society) been more/less deemed “useless!” So now? Surprise! For me, “older age” offers me the perk of NOT being dismayed by my becoming “useless” — since (supposedly) I have been all along! The Artist’s challenge? Having had to learn to love and trust myself JUST for being me . . . now turns out to be (to steal from that old Chivas Regal ad slogan) . . . “the best revenge!” Bwa-ha-ha!

  3. Gary "Buz" Hermes Avatar
    Gary “Buz” Hermes

    Thanks so much, Mary! This is a topic near and dear to my heart. Angeles Arrien used the term “gatekeepers” referring to the ways we elders bring the wisdom of our past experience to proposals for change as one example of how older generations benefit the culture. As an elder, I have also been increasingly aware of my valued role as “witness” to the challenges being faced by youth. My simple presence as a compassionate listener seems to be appreciated as they express their frustrations and explore their options. For me, it is less and less about what I do and more and more about who I am.

    1. Dr. Mary L. Flett Avatar

      I miss Angie! Thanks for bringing her spirit into consciousness! And thank you for being the legacy-holder for so many!

  4. Mabel Dean Avatar
    Mabel Dean

    I agree with Gary – we can best serve as witness and provider of compassionate support.

  5.  Avatar

    Makes me think of generativity. I love that this is coming into the conversational atmosphere. Judging my own Usefulness Quotient …there are days it seems high, other days I hope never to hear others’ opinion of that. I wonder if you’re thinking about some way for people to judge/estimate their own UQ. A measure. Which does kind of go against the more compassionate way of looking at this stage, but I’m trying to fit it into the “Quotient” framework.