Life: Older Americans finding new sense of purpose, author says
Older Americans finding new sense of purpose, author says


Twenty years ago, psychologist and gerontologist Ken Dychtwald rocked the way America looked at aging.

An “Age Wave” is coming, he said in his first book. The boomers are getting older. They will live long and they will forever change our assumptions about retirement and relevance.

Twenty years ago, his innovative perceptions altered business plans, encouraged colleges and universities to reach out to older students, suggested that a golden era for the golden years lay just ahead.

Now Dychtwald is back with another seminal work.

“With Purpose, Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life” (Collins) delves into the psyche of aging Americans and finds it surprisingly meaningful.

And with the oldest boomers turning 63 this year, the future of age never looked better, he says.

“I think, with the dramas that are unfolding with the economy – the Tao and the Dow, if you will – people are being forced to stop and think about who they are and what success really means.”

The “success model” for years has been a combination of power, wealth and leisure, he says. But interviewing college students and hearing they wanted to be “famous” or “rich” left Dychtwald questioning values:

“It struck me that we have created a model about what we want to be when we grow up which might be wrongheaded. Wrong and foolish.

“I think what’s going on is not just a crashing of the economy but seeing unsustainable companies and lifestyles disappear.

“I’ve never seen more people in more varying circumstances asking important questions of themselves and loved ones – what really matters to us? What kind of life do we want to lead?”

New hopes, new aspirations, says Dychtwald, are not focused on power, wealth and leisure. “More people are craving a chance to do something meaningful and important and even to help big organizations like United Way and UNICEF by creating business opportunities for them.

“I call it philanthropernuring.”

Ah, we all suddenly are generous with time, money and spirit? Philanthropy has become everymanthropy, Dychtwald says.

He’s talking about putting charities on a 21st century footing with related businesses. It’s called “social enterprise,” and the presidents of these businesses will reduce their salary needs because they are doing a good deed while doing somewhat well financially.

The material binge has ended, Dychtwald says, citing that change as the first indication that millions of boomers are moving from success to significance.

“The one model that will survive is doing work that is dedicated to our lifelong health, vitality and resilience.” he says.

His other key points:

•Financial self-reliance – “I don’t think everyone wants to be a billionaire or super rich. We are going to want to be involved our entire lives, and that requires some kind of continued work. With increasing longevity, work keeps people sharp, connected and creates a stimulating economy.”

•The end of “psycho sclerosis” or “hardening of the attitudes” – “We must continue to grow and learn to realize our full potential. One of the things coming out is how many of our icons – from baseball to business – got where they are by cheating. We need to succeed without cheating.”

•Social contributions – “We need to give back more. Use our knowledge and experience and free time in community engagement.

“Can you imagine 77 million boomers working together to make a better world?” Dychtwald asks me.

“Can you imagine everyone wanting to make a difference?”

I can imagine. And if only half those boomers search for significance after 60, how the world will change for the better.