How Do We Find Purpose in Life?

Not long ago I met with a man in his early 60s who was previously a top executive for one of the nation’s largest television networks. After a long and illustrious history with the organization, he had left amid turmoil in the media business.  The loss of stature, identity, and affiliation–really, of purpose–had not been easy.  When I asked him about navigating that disruption he described convening an informal group of friends and colleagues that got together regularly to take stock of what had happened in their lives–and to help figure out their next chapters.

The group had given themselves a name, he told me–“the PIP Squad,” short for “previously important persons.” He added that the band even had their own defiant credo: “The world may be done with us, but we’re not done with the world.”

The PIP Squad members are not alone.  They are part of a surge of individuals moving beyond midlife and facing fundamental questions about what to do with themselves before they become anything resembling elderly. Millions at this juncture yearn to live productive lives that matter. They want to use their experience in new ways. In recent years, an illustrious group of household names has helped elevate this ideal, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former President Bill Clinton.

This quest for purpose in the second half of life—long a desert of meaning and productivity–ranges well beyond the wealthy and powerful. An estimated 9 million Americans have moved into second acts at the intersection of purpose, passion, and a paycheck, so-called encore careers. Some 31 million more have said they want to follow in those footsteps and express a kind of practical idealism aimed at solving problems in areas like education, health, and poverty.

Daily Meaning and Daily Bread

As the intersecting longevity and demographic revolutions gather momentum and scale, we all have a lot riding on the ability of these (mostly) Baby Boomers to find purpose-driven lives and work.  They represent the beginning of an enormous and ongoing transformation: half the children born since 2000 in the developed world are projected to live until they are 100.

Since World War II, the reigning ideal for the golden years was to enjoy them playing golf or shuffleboard. But who still yearns to play 30 years of golf or shuffleboard? And who can afford to? Today, there is widespread concern that decade after decade of late-life leisure is simply not sustainable in a society that will have nearly a quarter of its population over 60. Many worry, appropriately, about people in their middle years having to support not only the younger generation but a vast and idle older population as well.

However, the affirmative reasons for harnessing people in their 60s, 70s, and beyond may be the most powerful ones for doing so. The post-midlife group contains a potential windfall of human capital. This cohort of talent is comparable in size and capacity to the army of women who moved into new productive roles two generations ago.

What’s more, new research on health and well-being in the latter stages of life suggests that Freud was right—that “love” and “work” remain the keys to satisfaction in later life.  More specifically, research from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago reveals that purpose in life functions as a buffer against cognitive deterioration (30 percent slower among the purpose-focused group). According to Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at Rush, “having a purpose in life is robustly protective,” even for individuals whose brains contain signs commonly linked to Alzheimer’s.

From Promise to Practice

So why is it exceedingly hard for so many people to move from this aspiration to action? How can individuals wanting purposeful second acts move most effectively in that direction?  How might we change pathways and policies to realize the full potential of the movement for purpose in the second half of life?

A central challenge confronting today’s purpose pioneers is that they are pioneers—at the forefront of a new norm, working against the grain of established tradition and behavior. Take the “official” retirement age.  Sixty-five was concocted as the retirement age in the1930s. As economist John Shoven of Stanford points out, we would never use 1930s dollars in the present without adjusting them for inflation–yet we persist in employing that anachronistic benchmark of being over the hill.

The purpose gap that persists today was first evident in the 1940s. Walter Reuther, the labor leader, described retirees as “too old to work, too young to die.” In the 1950s, insurance companies and developers created the ideal of the “golden years,” marketing the glories of leisure in retirement as a way to persuade more people to invest in what had become the leftover years.  The purpose of later life and its definition of success became, essentially, the absence of purpose, graying as playing, the freedom from work.  In essence, the years between the end of work and the end of life became a kind of second youth.

Today, those rejecting these longstanding conceptions of retirement and old age are headed towards a different shore. Some are taking matters in their own hands and creating opportunities to act on their desire for continued meaning and impact. For example, entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship have skyrocketed among those over 50—now arguably the most entrepreneurial segment in society. Recognizing this trend, The Purpose Prize offers awards to Americans in the second half of life who are marrying the benefits of experience and innovation.

In the eight years since it was introduced, the award has recognized 430 winners and fellows, out of some 8,000 nominations (Full disclosure—my organization,, operates The Purpose Prize.) These innovators include Catalino Tapia, a 2008 Purpose Prize winner who could anchor a POP-squad—of previously ordinary persons.  An immigrant to America who worked as a gardener, he was so moved by watching his son graduate from college and law school that he created a grassroots scholarship fund to help low-income, mostly Latino youth go on to higher education.

Still, for those disinclined to start something from scratch, how does one realize the desire for deeper purpose and continued contribution in what was once the retirement years?

A critical starting point is getting the upcoming timeframe right. This stage amounts to far more than a bridge between midlife and old age.  Those moving in the encore direction should understand that this next chapter could easily last 20 years, or longer—long enough for one to retool and make some missteps yet still produce a significant body of work. With this elongated trajectory, no wonder that so many are electing to return to school. There has been a doubling of individuals over 50 going to divinity school, for example, a trend Time dubbed “holy enrollers.”

Another important approach amounts to experimentation. Extensive research by management scholar Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD shows that most people who successfully shift directions don’t do so through discovering their passion in the abstract. Rather, they find ways to test out various roles—think ‘try before you buy’.

What’s more, few of the successful purpose pioneers are reinventors, despite the persistent presence of stories upholding this brand of radical life transformation. Most of the individuals I’ve met and studied over the years found a new calling through integrating the various strands of their life and experience, weaving together earlier chapters, skills, and interests into what frequently becomes their most important contribution to life.

That contribution is often aimed at leaving the world better for future generations.  Erik Erikson, the eminent psychologist, wrote that the hallmark of fruitful development in midlife and beyond could be encapsulated in the phrase, “I am what survives of me,” in the impulse he labeled “generativity.” With the time and energy to act on this bent, many are now not only planning to leave a legacy, but to live one.

Realizing the ideal of generative purpose means abandoning the “golden years” notion of clinging to our fast-fading youth. Instead of thinking of 60 as the new 30 or 40, we should recognize that 60 is, if anything, the new 60—and strive to embrace something resembling true maturity. Rather than yearning to be younger than we actually are, let’s be there for those who are young, who represent the future.

New Paths to Purpose

The new role models who are famous, like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, and not so famous, like Catalino Tapia, fill a valuable role by exemplifying later-life purpose. They are pointing the way for many others to follow in the same direction. But we will need more than role models–or for that matter life planning tips–to realize the full potential of this emerging movement.

As millions move into their 60s, 70s, and beyond, navigating the path to purpose needs to go beyond the do-it-yourself, one-at-a-time process it so often remains today. We will need to create more robust paths to purpose for those to follow who lack the means of a Bill Gates or Bill Clinton or the moxie of a Catalino Tapia.

Why not expand internships for adults hoping to get a foothold in a second act for the greater good—making it easier for purpose-seekers to try out a possibility? How about school for the second half of life, that extends beyond the edu-tainment focus of much lifelong learning and enables individuals to hone their skills?  Where are the Individual Purpose Accounts to go along with Individual Retirement Accounts, designed to assist in financing the often costly transition to purpose-driven work after 50 or 60? There is certainly room for policy innovation as well–why not make it possible for Americans to take a year or two of Social Security early, in the 50s even, for internships or education, with a pledge to work an additional number of years before getting full benefits?

In the last generation, the United States has produced retirement communities, senior centers, and opportunities for lifelong learning. We will need to muster that same kind of innovation to realize the true potential in much longer lives, to make them rewarding for those individuals and for American society, to transform the purported longevity paradox into the payoff it deserves to be.

In 1961, when JFK addressed the first White House Conference on Aging, he observed that we’ve added “years to life”—and the time had come to “add life to those years.” He might have said purpose.  With nearly 10,000 Americans turning 60 each day, hasn’t that time arrived?

Discussion Questions

1.  What strands of your own life and experience are most essential to your personal values? How might they be applied to life’s second act?

2. What are the most important things our society can do to encourage and support transitions to purposeful and productive contributions in the stages of later adulthood?

3. Is a purpose different from a duty? from a faith? If so, what is the difference?

4. Finding your purpose is important whatever your life stage. In what ways is that process different for young and older people?

Discussion Summary

We began the essay with the conviction that the search for purpose in the later stages of life is important not only to the individual, but also to society. With so many people now reaching what was traditionally retirement age, and with lifespans growing steadily in the US and across much of the developed world, the stretch version of the “golden years” focused on late-life leisure is no longer sustainable, nor desirable.  Who can afford decade upon decade spent in a kind of second adolescence, graying as playing?

Rather, love and work hold the keys to satisfaction in later life, says the research, and we agree. Millions of Boomers are weaving wisdom, skills, experience and interests accumulated over a lifetime to make what are arguably their most important contributions in life. Our organization,, highlights some of these individuals each year through the Purpose Prize, awarded to  those who exemplify the idea of engaging in second acts for the social good. The essay concludes with some practical advice and some ideas for policies to help encore-seekers channel their passions and purpose for the benefit of both themselves and others.

One commenter offered advice to those on the quest for purpose and meaning: to look at those around us as “for keeps” people. This attitude, he said, naturally grants other people “worth.” This insightful observation echoes the work of philosopher Martin Buber, whose “philosophy of dialog” explored the crucial importance of what he called “I and Thou” relationships over what an  “I-It” connection that is all too common in human relationships. It’s also worth noting that, in line with a theory called ‘socio-emotional selectivity,’ many older people prune their social networks as they age, spending more time with the people and pursuits that matter most to them. The compression of time often forces questions of meaning, one reason so many in the second half of life apply purpose with deeper significance.

Another commenter remarked on the limitation of many visions of greater glory, pointing to the wonderful Mark Twain story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” where newbies headed into the clouds are handed wings and harps, but run into malcontents heading back, abandoning their new equipment and complaining about boredom. Traditional images of retirement,  like traditional images of heaven, the commentator says, miss the idea of “purpose” – finding  ways to be useful to others and, in the process, remain deeply engaged with life. His poetic observations conjure Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the line “The pitcher cries for water to carry, and the person for work that is real.” Many retirees say they’ve never been busier, but nonetheless express discontent. By applying their talents to what others find useful  – often by helping solve problems in areas like education, health and poverty, and benefiting future generations – purpose and meaning are discovered.

Finally, one provocative commenter found the essay too prescriptive. He proposed letting retirees make up their own minds about what to do in their encore years, rather than pushing them in a normative direction. His observation on freedom, though, underlines the importance of options. In my view, the prevailing view in our culture has for too long has narrowly defined retirement as  a time for leisure, a “freedom from work.” Finding purpose, applying experience and skills toward solving problems, and feeling supported in the desire for the “freedom to work” in the later stages of life are aspirations to be celebrated. With so many tough problems in the world to solve, with so much latent talent available to help solve them, finding purpose and useful work in the later stage of life are options we as a culture cannot afford to let slip by.

New Big Questions:

1. Is it possible to “reinvent” oneself?

2. What is the meaning of “legacy”?

6 Responses

  1. Meyer1953 says:

    There is a straightforward and simple, foolproof, quest for meaning.  It is clearly exemplified in the examples given in the essay, but it also bears being specified.  Then, it can be entertained by yet further means.

    The search for meaning in life is fulfilled in one simple assessment: to look at one another, those people about us, as being “for keeps” people.

    If another person is indeed a “for keeps” person, then it stands to reason that worth is associated with that person.  And if worth is associated with the person, as for keeps, that fact calls on the worth of the person who so observes.  For, worth that exists draws properly on worth that can be delivered.  Thus, by seeing one another as worth, what is actually worthy within one’s own self is brought into practice.  What would be the better delivery of meaning, an accomplishment of ten years of nothing or an accomplishment of ten years of worth building on worth?

    Integrity is highly important when building towards other people’s lives, integrity of the real engagement between them.  But the instigation of the engagement as, that other people’s lives are “for keeps,” establishes not only a content to the relationship (often going widely abroad of its initial scope) but also a very wise content of integrity.

    How do we treat others when they are “for keeps” in their own lives, the results of which lives we never even see?  We are treating them as we would hope that our own highest best would be treated.  And in doing so, we are actually drawing forth from within ourselves that very strength of life itself, our highest best.  The result?  A stronger highest best, also called meaning.

    • Marc Freedman says:

      Thank you for these insightful reflections.  They remind me of the research of psychologist Laura Carstensen of Stanford University, who has developed a theory called socio-emotional selectivity.  In essence, Carstensen and her colleagues have found that older people, confronting the reality of fewer years ahead than behind, often prune their social networks so that they only include those individuals who matter most.  What often passes for isolation is actually agency.  The compression of time, in general, forces questions of meaning, and purpose, and priorities–which is one of the reasons so many individuals in the second half of life, I believe, turn towards work of deeper significance.

  2. George Gantz says:

    I was reminded on reading this article of Mark Twain’s story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” – all new visitors to heaven were issued wings and harps (as they expected) and headed off for the clouds, only to encounter returning hordes abandoning their gear and compaining of the incredible boredom and the desire to “do something”  Emmanual Swedenborg, almost two hundred years earlier, vividly described similar experiences (from his travels in the spritual world) of people newly arrived in the spiritual world expecting to sing praises to God all day or to have continual banquets with the patriarchs – soon thereafter some realize the hollowness of these meaningless pursuits and seek to flee the insanity.  Yes, our traditional images of retirement, like our traditional images of heaven, completely miss the key factor of “purpose”.  What is “purpose”?  Emmanul Swedenborg’s answer is simple – “being useful”.  In short, this means sharing our time, talent and treasure with our “neighbors” in the a heavenly spirit of love (seeking nothing in return).  A simple formula – but as you point out sometimes difficult to execute.  As a recently retired 62-year old, I am seeking to be the best and most loving person I can be to family and friends, while renewing my passion for math, science, philosophy and religion and the search for truth through the ISAS Forum (Integrating Science and Spirituality) on  I hope this proves useful to others!

    • Marc Freedman says:

      Thank you for the reference to Mark Twain’s story–which I’ve not read but now will–and for your poetic and keen observations.  On the subject of poetry, your reflections reminded me of Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use,” which concludes with these lines: “The pitcher cries for water to carry, and the person for work that is real.”  Sometime in the middle of the last century we decided that those precepts didn’t apply to people over some arbitrary age, which I believe has left many individuals adrift over an increasingly long period of time while depriving society of one of its greater “treasures”–to continue your apt metaphor.  One researcher, from the University of Kansas, describes the efforts of many retirees to fill this void as “the busy ethic”–the frenetic pursuit of myriad activities to fill up the space created by the absense of productivity and purpose.  How often we hear from people in their 60s, 70s, and beyond that “they’ve never been busier,” but to what end?  Thank you again for raising these important issues.

  3. wondering14 says:

    The author, who may or may not be or retirement age, sell retirees short. He implies that they can’t make up their own minds, that they can’t learn to live with less if they must, that they can’t–or shouldn’t–decide whether they want to play golf or shuffleboard, which they can’t afford to do.

    The author writes, “find purpose-DRIVEN lives and work”. Who wants to be “driven” in retirement? He writes of “HARNESSING people in their 60s, 70s, and beyond. Which retiree wants to be “harnessed”, and who is doing the harnessing? He writes of retirees being “a potential windfall of human capital.” Which retiree wants to be used?

    I think that most retirees are glad they are not working any more. If they want to work, fine. If they want to volunteer, play golf, take MOOCs, read a book, be a POP or a PIP, tour the U.S. in a camper…, fine.

    Are so many retirees fraught? Some are. But tailoring more government programs, as the author implies, to help retirees…. With our knowledge of the effectiveness of such programs, we should take a long time before incurring more debt for a new program, and if we do, it should be tried first at the state levels.  How many programs that help retirees already exist? 

    At least two funders of the author’s organization are the U.S.government’s Department of Education and the U.S. Administration on Aging. So I must wonder where the author’s organization’s welfare leaves off and the retirees’ benefits begin.

    How do we find purpose in life? I don’t think the author answered the question. It is not a new question. And the question will not disappear any time soon.  One thing that those who want to help retirees should not purposefully do is to tell retirees what they should want to do.

    • Marc Freedman says:

      These comments raise many provocative questions.  I can’t address them all here, but will try to speak to the overall direction of the writer’s critique. 

      I don’t think the question is whether or not we should be pushing retirees.  For over half a century we have already been “pushing” retirees: to the sidelines,  whether they liked it or not.  The origins of this approach were deeply rooted in a belief that individuals over a certain age were of little value to society, and certainly to the economy.  Through mandatory retirement and other techniques, including flat-out age descrimination, we ousted them from their midlife roles.  Then we accomplished the more remarkable task–beginning in the 1950s and 1960s–convincing them that it was their own idea, turning the push into a pull, called the “golden years.”  The freedom from work became a powerful draw for more and more Americans, supported by a system of public policies, cultural attitudes, and rituals that contributed to the steady shortening of working lives. 

      But these days and going forward, we simply can’t afford a leisure class of a quarter of the population spending something approximating half their adult lives in subsidized play.  Fortunately, a growing number of individuals in this stage of life are rejecting the old ideal, and creating a new one that fits with 21st century longevity and demographics, moving towards a goal of continuing to use their skills in ways that are personally meaningful and socially valuable. 

      My intended argument is that it should be just as easy to pursue the freedom to work as it has been the freedom from it–that anyone who wants to continue to contribute in areas where human capital is much needed, should have a fair shot at being able to do so.  And that if these purpose pioneers are successful we will all be better off. 

      Fortunately, there are signs of progress emerging, and not just at the individual level.  For example, Intel a couple of year’s ago announced that any retirement-eligible employees in the United States, could do a year long fellowship enabling them to translate their midlife management skills to an areas like education and health, to jumpstart a second act for the greater good.  They did so not as a replacement of traditional retirement benefits or planning, but as an alternative for those who wanted to continue contributing.  More companies should adopt similar policies, reflecting that more and more employees are looking to remain engaged and productive over considerably longer lifespans.

      Overall, we should create, I believe, a new and more sustainable norm in American society that values the contribution of individuals in what was once seen as the post-productive years–and the pathways and support required to help anyone who wants to move in this purposeful direction  go from aspiration to action.