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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, Encore.org, 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, Encore.org, 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”?