Re-Thinking Retirement in Life’s Third Age

By Ken Dychtwald

Rising longevity and the massive boomer age wave are causing us to re-think aging-related social roles. I’d like to look closer at how we’re re-thinking retirement in life’s third age—and how tomorrow’s retirees will find new purpose, contribution, fun and meaning in retirements that will last longer than ever before. Some of these ruminations were shared in detail in What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age, which I recently co-wrote with Robert Morison.

More Learning

Retirees of the future will seek more learning—and more of the personal development, fulfillment, and untapping of potential that goes with it. Paul Irving, Chair of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, makes an eloquent case for lifelong learning: “We should all go back to school at some point later in life. There’s something magic about being on a campus. It starts with feeding intellectual curiosity, challenging oneself, and realizing the joy of learning. Then there’s the opportunity to reinvent, reskill, update. Continuing one’s productivity requires lifelong learning. And returning to school can be a huge confidence builder—confidence both in what you know and in how much you can continue to learn.”

More Interdependence and Intergenerational Contributions

Intergenerational connection and contribution will go far beyond retirees making donations, volunteering, and leaving personal and financial legacies, important though they are. Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of CoGenerate (formerly reflects: “We need to create more and more opportunities for people to find encores later in life in roles that give back and benefit society. One of the most beautiful ways we can experience purpose in this phase of life is by forming deep connections that nurture the next generation. In the process, we not only alleviate social isolation and loneliness among older people, but also provide a deep sense of living a worthwhile life.”

Fernando Torres-Gil, Professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy at UCLA and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary on Aging, puts things in perspective: “We hear how great it can be to grow old and be independent and do whatever you want. That’s a good thing. However, the way I see it, the real ideal is interdependence, because we’re all going to need each other at some point, and none of us will ever grow old and be truly independent.”

More Activism

One of my most influential mentors was the legendary Maggie Kuhn, a visionary, author, and founder of the Gray Panthers. Maggie’s third age career was activism on behalf of both youth and age. In 1978, I was interviewing her and she told me: “We’re the elders of the tribe, and the elders are charged with the tribe’s survival and well-being. We who are older have enormous freedom to speak out, and equally great responsibility to take the risks that are needed to heal and humanize our sick society. We can and should try new things and take on entirely new roles.”

She went on to list what she thought were the most important of those roles: Testing new lifestyles, including living in more cooperative modes. Building new coalitions across ethnicities and economic conditions because age is a universal. Serving as watchdogs of public bodies and guardians of the public interest. Advocating for consumer rights and blowing the whistle on fraud and corruption. Monitoring corporate power and responsibility on behalf of workers and society. In short, using the power of wisdom, experience, and attention to assess society, heal what ails it, and plan for its future. Maggie’s agenda remains ambitious but is perhaps more relevant today than ever.

More Purpose

The destructive problems of ageism, the impacts of the age wave, the necessity to reframe aging—these are no longer “breaking” news. Very capable people such as Laura Carstensen, Jim Firman, Helen Dennis, Ashton Applewhite, Chip Conley and Imani Woody have been working and making progress on these issues for a long time, both battling ageism and guiding government groups, organizations, and companies to be better prepared for the demographically-driven changes to come. What’s different today is that half the massive boomer generation is now “retired.” The cohort that proclaimed “never trust anyone over 30” will soon all be over 60. The age wave is no longer coming. It’s here, and it will dramatically alter the future. By 2050, there will be more than two billion people over the age of 60 worldwide—and they need new roles and new purpose in their third age.

A few years ago, when I interviewed renowned psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman, PhD, he reflected, “The legacy to the boomer generation won’t be the ‘me first’ image of their early years, but rather the potential huge surge in volunteerism that might characterize their later years. It’s not how you begin the act, it’s how you leave the stage that people remember.”

Along the same lines, the journalist/philosopher David Brooks talks about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are the aspects of your character that others will praise at the end of your life, such as humility, kindness, courage.

Decades ago, in my book The Power Years, which I co-wrote with Dan Kadlec, I concluded that first living a legacy and then leaving it for future generations—not necessarily just the financial kind but doing something memorable that fixes a problem or lifts others—could emerge as the centerpiece of a true longevity revolution.

As we prepared for the book launch that was scheduled for mid-September 2005. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast with all her fury. I decided to donate all the future earnings from The Power Years to help rebuild New Orleans by supporting Habitat for Humanity. So, I wrote a letter to Jonathan Reckford, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity, telling him of my intention. A few days later Reckford called to thank me for my pledge. Then he shared with me a simple, yet life-clarifying observation: “Ken, I see and hear a lot of people your age going through what you’re going through.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “You know, you’ve got that gnawing feeling,” he said. “What gnawing feeling?” I probed. “You know,” he explained, “I believe you’re trying to make the transition … from success to significance.” Every now and then a clever or poignant idea grabs a hold of you, gets inside your mind, and creates an identity shift. Jonathan Reckford’s comment about the need to go from “success to significance” stirred me deeply and remains an ongoing guiding force in my life.

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