Ask the Aged…

December 4, 2016

Ten years ago, I reached a point in my career that felt either like a dead-end or a turning point – I wasn’t sure which. By then, I had spent 25 years as a gerontologist, professionally occupied with everything to do with ageing. I conducted research using longitudinal data sets and sophisticated statistical analyses. I developed and evaluated programmes to improve older people’s lives. I taught courses and gave lectures on ageing. I opined on policy issues affecting our ageing society. So what was the revelation?

I never talked to old people.

My research kept me at more than an arm’s length from the living, breathing individuals who were its subject. At best, hired interviewers spoke with my respondents. Elsewhere, I used even more distant secondary data sets. My ‘engagement’ with real people involved checking codes and running statistics. The living, breathing humans who reported buoyant life satisfaction or high levels of caregiver stress were equally distant from me. And so I suddenly felt an urge to go out into the world of people in the eighth decade of life and beyond, and listen to what they had to say. What I heard changed my whole approach to life. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

In a seminar room on an Ivy League campus, I sat across from hopeful, earnest, and anxious college seniors. In a few months, they would leave the classic tree-lined campus, the football games, and the near-gourmet meals that US dining halls now serve. I had arranged the meeting to find out what these ‘emerging adults’ wanted to learn about work and careers from their elders.

Sitting with these students on a bright spring morning, I anticipated that they would want to hear about success strategies, tips for getting ahead, and suggestions for landing a high-paying dream job. So I was taken aback by the first question. It came from Josh, a future money manager dressed in a jacket and tie. He asked:

I’d like you to ask them about something that really worries me. Do I need a purpose in life? That’s what all the books say, but I guess I don’t have one. Is there something wrong with me? And how do I get a purpose if I need one?

There was furious nodding from the other participants. Because these students were driven to excel, they had devoured books about career strategies and success, many of which emphasised purpose. They had heard motivational speakers exhort them to find a single life passion, without which they were sure to drift, rudderless, through a disappointing career. But as we talked, it became clear that it just didn’t feel that way to them. They might have an interest, an inclination, an inkling for something they would enjoy – but one all-consuming life goal eluded them. They feared that this lack of a unique and compelling purpose might doom them to a life of failure and futility.

And yet, from the other end of life’s voyage, our elders give us a very different view of a life purpose – and a tip for finding one. Basically, the oldest Americans (most of whom also struggled with the question) tell you to relax. They say that you are likely to have a number of purposes, which will shift as you progress through life.

Marjorie Wilcox, aged 87, brought this lesson home to me. Marjorie is tall, fit and active. She captures a certain casual elegance – there’s a bit of Lauren Bacall in both her appearance and the tone of her voice. Marjorie devoted her career to developing affordable housing, travelling to the worst parts of industrial cities throughout the US. With this passion to make things right in the world and her own history of adversity, I expected a strong endorsement of purpose as the first condition for a good life.

In fact, I heard something different from Marjorie and many of the other elders: namely, that our focus should not be on a purpose, but on purposes. She reported that the ‘purposes’ in her life changed as her life situation, interests, and priorities shifted. She warned specifically against being railroaded in the direction of a single purpose:

You will do several different things. Do not be on one train track because the train will change. Widen your mind. That’s what you should have as your priorities as a young person. Make sure you keep flexible. Lead with your strengths, and they will get you where you want to go.

The elders recommend that we re-shape the quest for a purpose, thinking instead of looking for a general direction and pursuing it energetically and courageously. Determining a direction in life is easier, more spontaneous, more flexible, and less laden with overtones of a mystical revelation that sets you on an immutable life path. Times change, circumstances change – indeed, change itself is the norm rather than the exception. A grand purpose, in their view, is not only unnecessary – it can also get in the way of a fulfilling career. Instead, they have offered the idea of finding an orientation, a ‘working model’ if you will, that guides you through each phase of life.

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