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Real Gains from Social Capital in Retirement

Friends getting together for coffee — Anna Shvets on Pexels

We underestimate the value of what we receive and what we give.

Social capital was discussed when women moved from voluntary activities in the workplace in the 1970s. Social capital is the value of your connections and voluntary activities.

The conversation went something like this: Who would provide the childcare? Cook the meals? Bring the refreshments for weddings/funerals, sit on the boards of charities? Run the Ladies Aid meetings? The question was who can we get to work for free now that they (women) are getting a paycheck?

A retired visitor asked if she could bring her grandchild to coffee with me, as our school district’s teachers are currently on strike. She provides the social capital of childcare, as I am sure parents are scratching together whatever arrangements they can make while they must still work but their kids are out of school.

I have enjoyed the riches of social capital in retirement.

One family I socialize with truly like entertaining friends and family. I’ve benefited from this largesse. I wanted to equalize the transaction, but I realized it didn’t matter. They enjoy hosting. They enjoyed sponsoring dinners.

I’ve reciprocated by paying it forward, I hope.

A neighbor doesn’t drive, and I give her rides. I’ve picked up garbage on the street. Not often enough — David Sedaris (the humor writer) famously picks up garbage daily and often writes about it.

People in one of my few charitable organizations take my breath away with the breadth of their volunteering and giving of time. For example, at Jesuit Volunteer Encorps, one woman harvests seeds from plants, and is part of a seed-saver project with a team, especially for heirloom plants.

Another person takes care of a toddler for a barely-making-it mom. Others are friendly visitors for “orphaned elders” who can’t get out, or they make meals at the Dorothy Day House.

We retired people often have more time than money. The volunteers I’ve spoken with say volunteering gives them purpose and satisfaction.

I retired close to my family specifically so I could be their sick childcare backup, or be the one who runs a daycare pickup when the parents need it, which isn’t often.

In turn, they invite me for Sunday dinner and include me in events with their friends. I enjoy greeting everyone, being socially engaging for an hour, and then slipping out to go home. (I have both a low extroversion tolerance and recognize I am the old fogey at these gatherings — although since most participants are parents, there is no more getting wild.)

Plus, I enjoy making friends from different age groups than my own. Sometimes I have to Google a term or new slang word I don’t understand when I get home. I was taken aback when I asked my son about something, though, and he said I’d have to ask “a young person,” like a teen.

Sharing our fruits

This November morning, I used the last of the raspberries I picked last June, for my breakfast. Neighbors had raspberry canes that bore berries prodigiously this year, and after a cool, wet spring they became ripe all at once.

My social capital meant I was invited to pick berries anytime and freeze them. They’ve lasted five months. Five months without buying berries.

Another author, Sean Kernan talks about the “emotional signature you leave.”

In the past, I’ve enjoyed the soapbox, ranted too much, and preferred to outwit someone rather than make them feel warm and welcomed. When I get angry, I pull out my biggest vocabulary words, as if more syllables win. My social skills need continuous checking. After all, I lived with Minnesota Nice, which means smile as you freeze someone out. But as I get older, I don’t need to play at one-up-woman-ship or always be right or whatever.

I do appreciate the company of particular people. I’ve learned to accommodate friends and acquaintances, even if their conversations can be repetitive or they hold differing opinions. Since I know I can forget the stories I’ve already told, I need patience.

Anyone would tell you I haven’t become a milksop, but we do need our social capital. We can have people in our lives who enjoy being in our company. We can groom the skills of being warm and welcoming, of being kind.

And being kind doesn’t mean being untruthful. I think it is important to give honest feedback, though the words can be thoughtful, or phrased as a question so the person can think about the issue. Likewise, for us; I am far more tolerant than I used to be. The twenty-year-old self, who was rather obnoxious and impulsive, wouldn’t recognize my current accommodating.

Do you bowl alone?

Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam is the now-famous book that talks about the decline of social capital — the trust economy, as it were. From the Bowling Alone website:

“Putnam warns that our stock of social capital— the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

“Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.

We’re even bowling alone.”

We might wring our hands and agree with much of what he has to say. Folks who watch only news or news feeds might think it’s gotten worse in the twenty years since the book was published. But then I face the paradox that among people I know, the extent of their willingness to be available is astounding.

We need friendships that are transactional — and reciprocal.

Can you give me a ride to the eye doctor? Can I feed your cat while you’re away for the week? Relationships of social capital can decrease the costs of paying for the support services that have popped up instead — ride-sharing services or pet sitters.

More of us, as we age, are living on our own by choice or happenstance — single, divorced, have children who are adults and independent, widowed, caretakers for a limited partner. It helps to be rich in social capital. Oh, by the way, you can be intentional about this — and we need to be. We also may need to rub off some of the sharp edges.

Some people choose to live with roommates and be that help-mate. There are many options to accomplish the goals.

I was on this kick of building a network while researching a historical person I’m writing about. Her fame came from network-building (maybe social climbing) which was very deliberate. But where are we if we aren’t deliberate? Maybe bowling alone, on a virtual bowling lane with virtual reality goggles to go with the game cued up on the television screen? I’ve seen these virtual games set up in nursing homes.

So I need to inspire myself to increase my social capital in a couple of areas. I need friends or at least companions who enjoy some activities I usually do alone.

None of my current friends want to go out at night nor love jazz like I do. I like to go on gentle hikes — there is a balance between too little walking and too much uphill clambering. Maybe it gets a little tougher as we age with our physical limitations and preferences (like going out at night).

Intention, action, investment, reciprocity. The formula is not difficult.

Oh, persistence, too.


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2 Responses

  1. Dorie Benesh Refling
    | Reply

    I wish you lived around the corner again!

    • Sharon Johnson

      Ah, shucks, it would be fun. Do you have any coloring books?

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