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Interview: Travelling New Roads at 60


Dr. Robert Stebbins

Dr. Robert Stebbins

At 60, a chemist becomes a standup comedian. A 69-year-old teacher becomes a furniture maker. A 60-something carpenter and his wife volunteer in Ethiopia with Habitat for Humanity.

It’s never too late to learn something new.

More and more of us are taking up new challenges at a time when we are supposed to be thinking about retirement. In his insightful new book, The Idea of Leisure (Transaction Publishers), Robert Stebbins reveals how we can use “serious leisure” to unlock our dreams and do the things we’ve always wanted to.

Dr. Stebbins is the author of 37 books and scores of articles. He is faculty professor in the department of sociology at the University of Calgary. A fellow of the Academy of Leisure Sciences and the Royal Society of Canada, he is also an amateur musician.

AHB reached him in Calgary

Ruth Dempsey: So what is serious leisure?

Robert Stebbins: Activities known as serious leisure – those of amateurs, hobbyists, and career volunteers – are pursued using unique combinations of skill, knowledge and experience.

Think civic orchestra concerts, public “star nights” run by amateur astronomers and volunteers helping with athletic games.

They demand a commitment of time and energy and sometimes money in learning new skills.

Serious leisure pursuits contribute enormously to the development of individuals and, often, to the well-being of the community.

RD: What about our early enthusiasms? Do we return to them in the later years?

RS: Retirees do sometimes take up the serious leisure they loved at an earlier age. They may also take up new serious leisure, bearing in mind, however, that any such activity takes time and effort.

For example, it may take a good three years to master the violin to the point where the musician will be welcome in the back desks of the local civic orchestra. And this assumes assiduous practice and a high tolerance for the initial scratching that inevitably comes with learning this instrument.

The payoffs are significant. For one thing, serious leisure activities can be exhilarating. They are also absorbing and respectable enough to be real substitutes for work. In fact for some retirees, this leisure is considerably more absorbing and possibly more respectable than their work was.

Add to that the buzz of learning to play a new instrument, building a beautiful table, or observing, as an amateur scientist, a stirring natural phenomenon. Not to mention the rewards of interacting with others, who share your leisure passion.

RD: Some retirees turn to new hobbies – photography, restoring antiques and outdoor adventures.

Idea of Leisure

RS: On the whole, hobbies are easier to master to a satisfying and fulfilling level than the amateur activities. That is, many hobbies are not substantially based on physical skill, among them collecting, some outdoor activities and the reading hobbies. Still, doing these well does require a good bit of knowledge and, in many instances, a good bit of experience.

The key for all the serious pursuits is discovering both a taste and an aptitude for them. Our neophyte violinist might love the music but find that he or she has limited manual dexterity or a weak ear for tonality.

RD: You describe museum volunteering as serious leisure. How so?

RS: Any volunteering that is truly voluntary is leisure. And all serious leisure is, among other things, putting in time and effort doing something that the participant wants to do and is reasonably capable of doing.

This is true for amateurs and hobbyists, but this holds as well for volunteers. Volunteering is altruistic activity. Volunteers want to help another person, organization or make an impact on an important problem.

Casual volunteering – handing out groceries at the local food bank or taking tickets at the door – requires little experience. By contrast, serious or career volunteering does rest on knowledge and experience. Working effectively with autistic children, for example, or volunteering as a guide at a zoo or historical site.

RD: Organizations like Cross-Cultural Solutions, report an increase in volunteers aged 50-plus. Participants say they are looking for adventure. Some want to experience a different culture with their children or grandchildren.

RS: Much of volunteering, even the career variety, involves learning while in the volunteer position. The career volunteer learns a great deal – gains considerable personal fulfillment – yet does not usually have to bring to the position substantial training or even, at times, experience.

So, older adults can find interesting accessible leisure in volunteering whether they want to help out at home or abroad.

RD: And leisure builds community . . .

RS: This is important point. For one thing, leisure plays an important role in generating social capital. Shared strong leisure interests can bring people together who would not otherwise have anything to do with each other.

This happens with community sports teams, arts groups, hobbyist clubs and teams of volunteers for arts festivals and museums, to mention a few.

Not only do these groups contribute to a strong community ethos – concerts, plays, athletic contests, exhibits and so on – they create social solidarity by enabling people who are initially strangers to get to know one another.

RD: What advice do you have for individuals nearing retirement?

RS: Get to know your leisure options, including realistically your taste and aptitude for various activities. Choose one or a few, and set out to make them your activities.

But which activities? Seeing a list of some of them may help. Check out the resources at Serious Leisure Perspective and Deep Fun.

When optimal, a person’s leisure lifestyle is usually composed of a combination of serious and casual leisure, possibly with some leisure projects mixed in.

These one-shot leisure projects have the advantage of being relatively short in duration. For example, the chance to build community by organizing a local food drive. Or, the sense of group involvement while participating in a skit or a one-time backpacking trip.

In the long run, a high quality of life flows from leisure pursuits that allow people to reach their full potential. Each person must find his or her own road.