32 Work and Leisure in Middle Adulthood

Workforce Participation in Canada and the U.S.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines workforce participation as the proportion of people ages  15 to 64 that is employed (OECD, 2019). Economic cycles change quickly. Workforce participation of one cohort can differ dramatically from that of another cohort. In 2019 workforce participation in Canada was estimated to be 74.5% and in the United States, 71.1% (OECD).

Climate in the Workplace for Middle-aged Adults

A number of studies have found that job satisfaction tends to peak in middle adulthood (Besen, Matz-Costa, Brown, Smyer, & Pitt- Catsouphers, 2013; Easterlin, 2006). This satisfaction stems from not only higher wages, but often greater involvement in decisions that affect the workplace as they move from worker to supervisor or manager.  Job satisfaction is also influenced by being able to do the job well, and after years of experience at a job many people are more effective and productive.  Another reason for this peak in job satisfaction is that at midlife many adults lower their expectations and goals (Tangri, Thomas, & Mednick, 2003).  Middle-aged employees may realize they have reached the highest they are likely to in their career.  This satisfaction at work translates into lower absenteeism, greater productivity, and less job hopping in comparison to younger adults (Easterlin, 2006).


A woman sitting in an interview with two other people
Image 5.32.1: Women can be discriminated against in the workplace in terms of career advancement, eventually hitting a “glass ceiling”

However, not all middle-aged adults are happy in the work place.  Women may find themselves up against the glass ceiling, organizational discrimination in the workplace that limits the career advancement of women.  This may explain why females employed at large corporations are twice as likely to quit their jobs as are men (Barreto, Ryan, & Schmitt, 2009).  Another problem older workers may encounter is job burnout, becoming disillusioned and frustrated at work. U.S. workers may experience more burnout than do workers in many other developed nations, because most developed nations guarantee by law a set number of paid vacation days (International Labour Organization, ILO, 2011), the United States had neither federally-required paid holidays or paid vacation does  (Maye, 2019; U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). Canada in contrast requires 10 paid vacations days and 9 paid holidays. Recent statistics (Maye) show growing disparity with time allotted remaining the same for Canada and the U.S., while Japan now mandates 15 paid holidays in addition to 10 paid vacation days.

Not all employees are covered under overtime pay laws (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). This is important when you considered that the 40-hour work week is a myth for most Americans. Only 4 in 10 U.S. workers work the typical 40-hour work week.  The average work week for many is almost a full day longer (47 hours), with 39% working 50 or more hours per week (Saad, 2014). In comparison to workers in many other developed nations, Canadian and American workers work more hours per year (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, 2016). As can be seen in Figure 8.19, North Americans work more hours than most European nations, especially western and northern Europe, although they work less hours than workers in other nations, especially Mexico.

Challenges in the Workplace for Middle-Aged Adults

In recent years middle aged adults have been challenged by economic downturns, starting in 2001, and again in 2008.  Fifty-five percent of adults reported some problems in the workplace, such as fewer hours, pay-cuts, having to switch to part-time, etc., during the most recent economic recession (see Figure 8.20, Pew Research Center, 2010a). While young adults took the biggest hit in terms of levels of unemployment, middle-aged adults also saw their overall financial resources suffer as their retirement nest eggs disappeared and house values shrank, while foreclosures increased (Pew Research Center, 2010b). Not surprisingly this age group reported that the recession hit them worse than did other age groups, especially those age 50-64. Middle aged adults who find themselves unemployed are likely to remain unemployed longer than those in early adulthood (U.S. Government Accountability  Office, 2012).

In the eyes of employers, it may be more cost effective to hire a young adult, despite their limited experience, as they would be starting out at lower levels of the pay scale.  In addition, hiring someone who is 25 and has many years of work ahead of them versus someone who is 55 and will likely retire in 10 years may also be part of the decision to hire a younger worker (Lachman, 2004).  American workers are also competing with global markets and changes in technology.  Those who are able to keep up with all these changes, or are willing to uproot and move around the country or even the world have a better chance of finding work. The decision to move may be easier for people who are younger and have fewer obligations to others.

In Canada, the recession of 2008 was a bit less severe than in the U.S. for a number of reasons. One is thought to have been Canadian employers’ practice of relying equally on reducing hours and eliminating jobs (Grant, 2018).


Man with gray hair watching a TV
Watching TV is among the most common leisure activity for young and middle aged adults.

As most developed nations restrict the number of hours an employer can demand that an employee work per week, and require employers to offer paid vacation time, what do middle aged adults do with their time off from work and duties, referred to as leisure?  Around the world the most common leisure activity in both early and middle adulthood is watching television (Marketing Charts Staff, 2014).  On average, middle aged adults spend 2-3 hours per day watching TV (Gripsrud, 2007) and watching TV accounts for more than half of all the leisure time (see Figure 8.21).

In the United States, men spend about 5 hours more per week in leisure activities, especially on weekends, than do women (Drake, 2013; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016).  The leisure gap between mothers and fathers is slightly smaller, about 3 hours a week, than among those without children under age 18 (Drake, 2013).  Those age 35-44 spend less time on leisure activities than any other age group, 15 or older (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). This is not surprising as this age group are more likely to be parents and still working up the ladder of their career, so they may feel they have less time for leisure.

Americans have less leisure time than people in many other developed nations.  As you read earlier, there are no laws in many job sectors guaranteeing paid vacation time in the United States (see Figure 8.22). Ray, Sanes and Schmitt (2013) report that several other nations also provide additional time off for young and older workers and for shift workers. In the United States, those in higher paying jobs and jobs covered by a union contract are more likely to have paid vacation time and holidays (Ray & Schmitt, 2007).

But do Canadian and U.S. workers take their time off?  

A survey by a Canadian payroll management company indicated that only a third of Canadian workers took the 2 weeks annual vacation they are allotted, and an additional 28% said they took less than half of the 2 weeks (Desjardins, 2018). According to Project Time-Off (2016), 55% of U.S. workers in 2015 did not take all of their paid vacation and holiday leave. A large percentage of this leave is lost.  It cannot be rolled-over into the next year or paid out. A total of 658 million vacation days, or an average of 2 vacation days per worker was lost in 2015. The reasons most often given for not taking time off was worry that there would be a mountain of work to return to (40%), concern that no one else could do the job (35%), not being able to afford a vacation (33%), feeling it was harder to take time away when you have or are moving up in the company (33%), and not wanting to seem replaceable (22%).  Since 2000, more American workers are willing to work for free rather than take the time that is allowed to them. A lack of support from their boss and even their colleagues to take a vacation is often a driving force in deciding to forgo time off.  In fact, 80% of the respondents to the survey above said they would take time away if they felt they had support from their boss.  Two-thirds reported that they hear nothing, mixed messages, or discouraging remarks about taking their time off.  Almost a third (31%) feel they should contact their workplace, even while on vacation.

The benefits of taking time away from work

Several studies have noted the benefits of taking time away from work.  It reduces job stress burnout (Nimrod, Kleiber, & Berdychevesky, 2012), improves both mental health (Qian, Yarnal, & Almeida, 2013) and physical health (Stern & Konno, 2009), especially if that leisure time also includes moderate physical activity (Lee et al., 2015). Leisure activities can also improve productivity and job satisfaction (Kühnel & Sonnentag, 2011) and help adults deal with balancing family and work obligations (Lee, et al., 2015).

Media Attributions

  • adult-advice-businesswoman-70292
  • tv-1240159_1280


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Always Developing Copyright © 2019 by Anne Baird is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book