Re-Thinking Purpose in Life’s Third Age

By Ken Dychtwald

In the mid-1990s I had the good fortune of getting to know legendary feminist Betty Friedan after the publication of her book The Fountain of Age. One night over dinner, I asked Betty what her purpose was in writing The Feminine Mystique back in 1963. She told me that she had felt the time had come when women should no longer be measured by the metric of men—either how well they could please a man or how they might compete with men generally. “Women,” she said, “should be measured by the metric of women.” When I then asked what her purpose was in writing The Fountain of Age, she said that elders should no longer be measured by the ageist – and often mean-spirited – metric of youth. “Who knows,” she reflected. “Maybe in the decades ahead, elderhood will once again be appealing, even aspirational.” We raised our glasses of wine and toasted the possibility.

That hope is closer to reality today with the emergence of a new stage of life, the “third age,” a concept borrowed from the European tradition of adult education, which inspired my recent book, recently written with Robert Morison, What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age. The book was accompanied by a national PBS special I hosted titled Life’s Third Age.

What is this third age? In a nutshell: in life’s first age, from birth to approximately age thirty, the primary tasks center on biological development, learning, partnering, and procreating. During the early years of human history, the average life expectancy of most people wasn’t much higher than the end of the first age, and as a result, the predominant thrust of society was oriented toward these most basic drives. In the second age, from about thirty to sixty, the concerns of adult life focus on the formation of family, child-rearing, and the ascendancy of productive work. Until the last century, most people couldn’t expect to live much beyond the second age, and society was centered on the concerns of this age.

However, with our longer lives, and the arrival of the boomer age wave, a new era is unfolding, the third age, which brings new freedoms, new responsibilities, and new purpose to adulthood. With children grown and many of life’s basic adult tasks either well under way or already accomplished, this period allows the further development of emotional intelligence and maturity, wisdom, and one’s own personal sense of purpose. The third age has another appealing dimension: there’s an abundance of free time and opportunities to try new things—and to contribute to society in new ways. In the next twenty years, boomer third agers will have nearly four trillion hours of leisure time to fill in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, we’re looking at fifty trillion hours of boomer time affluence. However, I’ve been troubled to notice there’s a lot of confusion among many retirees regarding what they should be doing with their free time. Over the last decade, the average American retiree watched forty-seven hours of television a week. Maybe if we cut a few hours off that and gave more of ourselves back to our communities, we’d all reap the benefits. The historically unique convergence of longevity, time affluence, and wisdom produces unprecedented potential for elders to be seen not as social outcasts but as a living bridge between yesterday, today, and tomorrow—a critical evolutionary role that no other age group can perform. In this third age, we need to focus not simply on striving to be youthful but also to be useful. How can we be most helpful to our children, to our communities, and to the future?

And there surely is a need, particularly during this high-anxiety period in history: so many in our communities would be enriched with more involvement from grown-ups – by us sharing—not hoarding—our life experience and perspective, as coaches, mentors, teachers, guides, and surrogate parents and grandparents. We should also reach out to people in neighborhoods and communities beyond our own and even other parts of the world. Taking a cue from the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, it would be wonderful if we elders concerned ourselves with future generations, those not yet born. They deserve a planet with a healthy environment and the opportunity to learn and grow, and as many chances to unleash their curiosity and explore their potential as possible.

If you’re interested in learning more about our presentation, “The Birth of Life’s Third Age and the Retirement of Retirement,” for your business or association, please click here.