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Age Influences How You Understand and Experience Purpose
Our relationship with and sense of Purpose shifts as we grow older.
“We don’t have to worry about finding our one true purpose; we can find purpose in different areas of life. In fact, purpose isn’t something we find at all. It’s something we can cultivate through deliberate action and reflection, and it will naturally wax and wane throughout our lives.” —Kira Newman for Greater Good Berkeley
Research has pulled up conflicting evidence as to whether or not purposefulness increases as we age (at least until late life).20 In the wild world of possibilities available to us in our lives, it ends up that it is possible to feel a lack of purpose at any age: many adolescents report a sense of emptiness21 and in one survey of folks in late adulthood to late-life only 30% claimed to feel purposeful.22 But don’t let the trends depress you; with conscientiousness and openness you can cultivate purpose at any age.
And, keep in mind that purpose is plural– in the moment, and across life. Believing you have one single purpose can limit the possibilities of experiencing it across your life. You AND your life circumstances change over time, how might your purpose(s) as well?
Many of us have the impression that we will find our Purpose and progress exponentially as we follow it through. In reality, we may have many Purposes in a well-lived life that have dips, dives, and endings. The Purpose journey is one of experimentation, discovery, and action, that gets repeated again and again throughout our lives.
In accordance with developmental stages, it appears there are trends for how we relate to purpose and the challenges we encounter with it at each age. As you read through them, however, take them with a grain of salt. Consider that everyone is unique and may experience purpose differently than the “average.” Our lives and circumstances shift and rarely follow a perfect script.
When we’re kids we don’t have the brain circuitry for enduring goals like purpose but we certainly have the capacity to discover things we’re interested in and enjoy. These are called “sparks.”
A kid that absolutely adores dancing, bicycling, firefighters, caring for animals, gymnastics, telling stories, etc.
How Your Conversations Can Help Kids Discover their Purpose
This short 1.5-minute video from Greater Good Berkeley explains that talking to our kids about the bigger picture of their life and reflecting back to them their strengths can help them develop a sense of Purpose.
(12-20) In adolescence, we begin our identity development through experimentation in social roles and start to establish our value systems. This can cement what we care about and bring a sense of direction into view as we think about what we want out of our lives. Purpose often develops in tandem with identity, and research indicates that the stronger a sense of identity one has, the more likely they are to have a sense of purpose.23
- A teen who joins student government and becomes passionate about understanding and applying good leadership.
- A kid who volunteers with charity programs through their religious institution and discovers an interest in social work.
- A minority student who experiences discrimination and becomes passionate about racial justice work.
(20-35) As young adults, the need for a sense of purpose becomes very high. We feel pressure from our cultures and families to figure out what we’re going to do with our lives. At this point in time, the search for purpose can be enjoyable and simultaneously stressful.24
- A college student who switches majors constantly.
- Someone who chooses to go to a trade school so they can start working as quickly as possible.
- Someone who goes out traveling around the world working odd jobs before, during, after, or instead of school.
(35-50) In midlife, common sources of purpose are work, raising children, and taking care of older family members. When we’re missing that sense of purpose in this stage, the search itself starts to become more uncomfortable as the need for purpose in life seems to increase.24 Purpose researcher Kendall Bronk believes this is because society expects us to have figured it out by then.
- Someone busy with raising their kids
- Someone focused on a purposeful career
- Someone still searching; they may be changing jobs often, changing relationships, moving around, or perhaps simply dissatisfied.
(50-80) In mature adulthood, purpose seems to take a dip and challenge us to renew our relationship with it. People retire, their families may need them less, and they have less life ahead of them than behind them. It is common to have a crisis of meaning at this stage and re-examine what one wants to do with the rest of their life.25 Some researchers credit this lapse in purposefulness with a ‘structural lag’ in support of well-being at this stage of life. They claim that institutions have not caught up with supporting people at this life stage as our lifespans have increased.25 At the same time, this life stage provides an excellent opportunity for people to re-imagine their lives and cultivate a new sense of purpose. *See Rethinking Retirement below!
- An important executive who ages out due to technology they haven’t kept up with.
- Someone who retires and finds themselves bored.
- A woman without grandkids and whose adult children who have moved away and who has a job just to pay the bills.
- Someone who realizes their job doesn’t inspire them anymore, or they’re not satisfied with their accomplishments, and they have decided they want to shift their work to having a different impact and focus area.
- An Encore Fellow
In late life, purpose may take a dip again often due to the fact that purpose is a future-oriented venture. At this stage, people are unlikely to pursue ambitions27 but they often feel they have accomplished something and that their lives are meaningful, therefore leading them to claim that their lives are purposeful. Those who have a sense of purpose at this time in their lives are more likely to have strong relationships, a sense of community, and be engaged in some type of working endeavor (such as volunteering).
- An elderly woman who has taken charge of organizing the social activities in her nursing home.
- Your grandpa who is trying to enjoy his old age after raising seven kids; he takes it easy and watches baseball most days, satisfied with his life accomplishments.
Some Additional Considerations for Purpose Across Life:
Above are some general trends, and, there are a handful of other challenges you might meet in addition.
- You could get “trapped” in a certain purpose early on in life due to a significant experience you’ve had or some pressure to choose (think committing to law school because your family supports it, think advocating for DARE in high school because a friend overdosed and you continue to stay with that type of work).
- Believing you can only have one purpose and feeling stressed about finding it or staying with what you’ve chosen.
- At the later stages of life, you could struggle to pressure yourself to be actively engaged in a purpose when reflected purpose may be enough (reflecting on the purposefulness of your life) or a more stable purpose like being with and supporting your family (and thus younger generations) may be enough.
Try This: Chart your Purpose Journey as you age
- On a piece of paper write out each life stage across the top .
- For the stages you’ve already lived (and your current stage) write down the following:
- Aspirations you had at that time for your life
- Things you enjoyed doing
- Things you spent most of your time doing
- Your relationship to purpose at that stage: did you feel purposeful or not? Were you searching or not?
- How has your relationship to purpose changed over time? Have you had it and lost it and changed it? If you could plot out how purposeful you felt relative to each life stage, how would it look on a chart? Feel free to plot the beginnings of new purposes or the progression of different ones, or do one overall line representing your relationship to it.
- What do you hope your experience with purpose will be going forward? Imagine yourself at 80… what kind of life do you want to be living?
Mimicry, Exploration, Commitment, and Legacy is another way to look at purpose stages
The Four Stages of Life
Author Mark Manson summarizes four life stages: Mimicry, Exploration, Commitment, and Legacy. These are his personal versions of a range of ideas on developmental life stages in psychology. Life stage models in general are not exhaustive representations of truth and are often misleading through the implication that we progress tidilly and linearly through our lives. Remember that one can be in multiple stages at the same time or jump around the order.
Regardless of the misleading nature of stage models, Manson’s summary model is simple to understand and thus useful for explaining our relationship to purpose (if only cursorily). Through the lens of purpose at different times in our life, these four stages compare with the processes covered in the Meaning Of Life – Purpose section: Clarify (clarifying your dreams, interests, skills, and ways to impact the world) and Align (designing purpose(s) suited specifically to you and uncovering actions to make it a reality) .
We mimic until we begin questioning our values, then explore to learn what we want and can contribute, commit to a project that channels what we learned, and try to make an impact through leaving a legacy. Mark also asserts that we may go through the process multiple times in our life and that we often hop around to different stages. The path isn’t linear!
The stage of copying one another to learn. Often shows up as doing what we’re told to do. It results in validation and acceptance but often leaves our own desires unexamined or neglected.
- Becoming a doctor/lawyer/teacher because your family/culture says you ought to/ believe it is a respectable career.
- Wearing goth clothes because you want to be accepted by the goth kids.
- Working hard in school purely to get good grades and not for the sake of learning.
- Getting married around the time all your other friends are settling down even if you’re a little unsure of your partner.
A stage in which we desire to differentiate ourselves from others, express our individuality, and learn what we care about. Tends to bring with it periods of instability.
- Taking a gap year to travel.
- Leaving your job and exploring other career options or returning to school.
A time when we’ve learned what we care about and have decided to commit to it, be that a place, family, job, or cause. We recognize that making an impact takes time and dedication.
- Starting a family
- Studying law or medicine and committing to practice.
- Designing and committing to a 5 year or 10-year life plan.
After having accomplished something we’re proud of we become invested in preserving its value, but are no longer pursuing the same commitments for various reasons.
- Retiring from a career.
- Children are grown.
- Finishing one entrepreneurial project and resting afterward before potentially engaging in another.
- Late-life with physical or cognitive decline keeping one from engaging in projects.
Try This: Think about it…
Quickly come up with two examples of ways you’ve executed each stage thus far in your life:
Rethinking Retirement Gives Purpose a Fresh Start
“One of the reasons that old age is so disconcerting to many people is that they feel as if they’re stripped of their roles. As we enter old age and face physical frailty, the departure of children, retirement, and the deaths of loved ones, we see the lights fading, the audience dwindles, and we are overwhelmed by a loss of purpose, and by the fear of not knowing how to behave or where we now fit in this play.” -Ram Dass
Retirement has a significant role to play in our purpose narratives. Do you personally have a dream of making it to retirement and subsequently having the freedom to live a life of leisure and enjoyment? How we think about retirement may set us up for failure or fulfillment in the present and by the time we reach that stage of our lives.
Retirement as a government-enforced policy is a relatively new concept. While the Roman Empire is credited with offering pensions to military personnel in its heyday, retirement wasn’t a sanctioned and defined process in the Western world until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The USA instated a retirement policy in 1935 that offered benefits to those who’d reached the “ripe old age” of 65.
We don’t typically consider 65 ripe old age anymore, but in 1935, the average life expectancy was 60 years old. That meant that far fewer folks reached retirement than they do today, as today’s average life expectancy has increased to roughly 79 years while the age of retirement has stayed the same.28 In the 1950s, advertisers began to glamorize retirement as “the golden years,” and it became a goal post. Our lives have continued to get longer since then (going from 70 in the fifties to 79), thereby extending the length of our retirement and creating more opportunities for us to do more during that time (or possibly languish from doing less).
It’s common to frame retirement as an ultimate goal post– endure your career until you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. Retirement is seen as a mystical land of relaxation and pleasure afforded to us as a reward for our hard work. It has a “been there, done that, I’m done” attitude, and can reframe our current circumstances as a necessary sacrifice for future gains.
This model of post-career-bliss-land can work for people; like people living in ‘The Villages,’ an all-encompassing retirement community with activities and amenities up the wazoo. People in their “golden years” who enjoy places of this kind get to stay engaged and upkeep a vibrant community of relations, two factors that seem to be essential to physical health, well-being, and longevity. While Purpose may or may not be facilitated by these types of communities, the presence of purpose in older adults is highly correlated with having strong social networks, especially family.29
Some Kind of Heaven – Official Trailer
Some Kind of Heaven is a documentary tracking the lives of various individuals who have chosen to live in a luxury retirement community called, “The Villages.” While one resident describes the community as, “like being on vacation every day,” several of the people followed throughout the film have their grievances and struggles with the front of paradise marketed to them.
The setup of quitting work and relaxing (hopefully until you die) doesn’t seem to work for everyone, even though most folks say this is what they’re looking forward to. Many people end up unsatisfied in retirement. Purpose researchers hypothesize that this could be due to an absence of purpose. Because so many people look to their work as their source of purpose, once retired they may no longer feel they have a mission.
Author, gerontologist, and psychologist Ken Dychtwald explains in his new book about retirement that, “[Retirees] struggle with their identity, relationships, and activity… Some people feel unsettled, anxious or even bored…”34 This is especially the case if they are not deeply involved in a community or they’re without a central role in their children’s or family’s lives. In one survey of people ages 50-92, only 30% reported feeling purposeful.22
Aside from “Go enjoy yourself!” there doesn’t appear to be much helpful advice, support, or structure for this phase of our lives, especially as the time we’re slated to be in it grows longer. While organizations like Modern Elder Academy, Encore and My Future Purpose are striving to create this support through fellowships and programming, still more unpredictable issues arise with the concept of retirement as the economy shifts in unprecedented ways with technology changing our lives at a rapid clip. For example the American economy around 2020 was characterized by increasing costs of living matched with multiple recessions, a pandemic, and a lag in wage increase, making it more challenging for a quarter of Millennials and Gen Xers at the time to feel confident that they’d be able to afford a comfortable retirement at all.30
Those same technological shifts can contribute to the sense of purposelessness that older generations experience. When the evolution of tech outpaces people (often because they don’t want to, don’t see the need to, or don’t feel confident in learning or using it31) they can begin to feel obsolete or disconnected from the multigenerational communities they are a part of. While becoming isolated from our communities is a travesty in light of its impact on well-being, this resistance to technology adoption may be related to the human inclination to be less open as we age, another barrier to purposefulness. (All this isn’t a death sentence of course- Chip Conley of MEA discusses how to navigate that challenge in his blog here).
Benjamin Hardy writing for Inc.com offers,
“According to research on the Big 5 Factors of personality, as people age, they tend to become less and less open to new experiences. They stop seeking novelty and change. They stop imagining a bigger future. Their past becomes increasingly prevalent in predicting who they are and will be. Their life becomes increasingly routine.”32, 33
Openness to change and experimentation lays the groundwork for purpose cultivation, so an absence of it can make things more challenging for folks in this stage of life. But not all is lost.
While there are different sets of challenges to cultivating purpose at every stage of life, being 60 or older does not have to be perceived as the biggest hurdle with the least resources. One can shift the expectation of a full and meaningful life after retirement to come from leisure and lack of responsibility to a different perspective that anticipates the tremendous value of having the renewed freedom to choose responsibility.
Yes, many of us have had the option to choose our duties at many or most stages of life. However, the transition to retirement offers a socially sanctioned disruption that allows great potential for us to cultivate a sense of purpose, whether or not we have in the past. Given that purpose research indicates the massive value addition of self-transcendent, meaningful responsibility and its related long-term goals, one could be remiss to prioritize self-indulgent leisure entirely over contributing to a cause they believe in at this stage of their lives.
Ken Dychtwald suggests in an interview with the New York Times that what he dubs the “third age” of life (60-90) is now a time of reinvention:
“It’s no longer, only wow, you have time and are free to do your thing. It’s about continuing to grow, learn, meet new people, try new things and even discover new purpose.”
In regards to considering the possibilities of this stage, he adds:
“Far too many think far too small. I have asked thousands of people from all walks of life over the years who are nearing retirement what they hope to do in retirement. They tell me: “I want to get some rest, exercise some more, visit with my family, go on a great vacation, read some great books.” Then most stall. Few have taken the time or effort to study the countless possibilities that await them or imagine or explore all of the incredible ways they can spend the next period of their lives.”
What would it be like for you to consider ‘the incredible ways’ you could live not only your “third age,” but the rest of your life?
Try This: Think about it…
- How many years have you been an adult (since age 18)?
- Make a quick list of the top ten most impactful experiences, accomplishments, and learnings that have occurred since then. (If you’re in your early twenties (or closer to 18), consider a top 5 list or simply think about the last 10 years.)
- How many years of life do you have left until the age of 79? (And, consider that’s just the average life expectancy.)
- Considering the abilities and wisdom you’ve gained since the age of 18, if you were to continue to learn and experience new things, how does that affect your expectations or impression of the rest of your life?
What’s next? Well, you could make an intentional life plan! Figure out how to use all the glorious time you have left to its greatest potential!
Resource Organizations for Purpose at different life stages
- Modern Elder Academy
- “MEA is the world’s first wisdom school dedicated to midlife transitions. We’re changing the way society views aging through our programs at our Baja campus, online, and at our new location in New Mexico.”
- “We work to change the culture by elevating new ideas and diverse voices on the power of connection and collaboration across generational divides. We accelerate innovation by offering a variety of fellowships that empower people bringing generations together to solve society’s greatest problems, increase capacity in the social sector, and create new models for the multigenerational workforce. And we leverage leaders, organizations and networks to build a movement making intergenerational connection and collaboration the norm.”
- My Future Purpose
- “My Future Purpose is a multi-faceted membership organization founded by Joyce Cohen and Vicki Thomas who are committed to the growing purpose movement. My Future Purpose helps individuals, professionals and organizations harness the power of purpose by providing weekly featured speakers, Timely Topics, Bring Your Own Idea (BYOI), virtual retreats and collaborative initiatives to guide participants to discover their purpose. Our purpose is to inspire yours.”
- Purpose Challenge
- “…a free online toolkit aimed at high school students in the process of applying to college.
The assembled team behind the Purpose Challenge includes experts who have spent decades researching purpose, as well as specialists in psychology, education, youth development, and social impact. The Purpose Challenge toolkit features activities designed to help students not only explore and identify their purpose but also infuse what they learn about themselves into their college applications.”
- “…a free online toolkit aimed at high school students in the process of applying to college.
- Usher’s New Look
- “Usher’s New Look is a non-profit organization that transforms the lives of under-resourced youth through comprehensive programming which develops passion-driven, global leaders from middle school through college. We are determined to enable young people to discover their spark, graduate from high school, achieve higher education and training, build careers, and be of service to their communities. Our work helps youth future-proof their lives from negative statistics to become leaders who change their world.”
- The Future Project
- The Future Project is a program dedicated to supporting teens and young adults in developing purpose by placing mentors and offering programming at various highschools. Today they are transitioning to an online platform to support youth everywhere.
- As kids we experiment with things we enjoy. As adolescents we begin to establish our values and identities. As adults we search for purpose and often develop it through caring for family or through our work. In mature adulthood we often experience a crisis of purpose when family and work exit the picture. In old age we tend to experience heightened meaning and likely feel that our lives were purposeful.
- One useful stages model from Mark Manson suggests we move through Mimicry, Exploration, Commitment, and Legacy over and over again.
- Many folks end up unhappy in retirement since our lives have gotten longer and much of our sense of purpose came from our jobs and family (often not primary responsibilities in retirement age). However, this natural shift in responsibilities offers a perfect opportunity for cultivating new purposes in our lives. There are now several programs helping folks in this life stage cultivate a new sense of purpose.
Section Summary & Next Steps
- Our personal understanding of and relationship to purpose is impacted by our cultures and experiences.
- When we deconstruct our beliefs about something we can better understand how each belief has influenced our choices and behaviors, thus empowering ourselves to make choices that better serve our hopes and dreams.
- Our purpose narratives are influenced by our cultures and circumstances; more specifically our childhood and experiences, history, religion and ethical beliefs, economic & political stability, and our stage of life.
Now that you have learned about how your purpose narratives have been influenced and taken some time to reflect on your personal narratives, we recommend continuing to read by visiting the next section, Purpose as your Work. Continuing to read the Purpose section will inform you to reflect more deeply and prepare you for clarifying, designing, and cultivating your purpose(s). However, if you’d like to dive straight into more reflections, please visit the Clarify page for more guided prompts and activities.