Our search for purpose as we age

It isn't a bug in the system. It's a feature.

We expect change in "the second half of life." The culture tells us we are now "old," or at least "older." The realities of the workspace and the financial structures in place (retirement plans, pensions, and Social Security) conspire to create and enforce an all-or-nothing view of our lives. Before: education and work. After: rest and relaxation, with the assumption that there will be a period of physical and mental decline.

"I've spent decades at work, and decades before that in school," the new retiree says to herself. "I've delivered the goods. Now, that's behind me. After all, as we get older we all lose our edge, our drive."

Or do we? Or is that just a story we've been telling ourselves?

Our ideas of retirement are based on demographic realities of nearly a century ago. Sixty-five was chosen as the Social Security cutoff date in the 1930s, based on the life expectancy of Americans born in the 1870s. We live with the expectations of a system created for people born 150 years ago. No other aspect of our lives is still ruled by the thinking of an era when modern medicine was in its infancy, walking the standard means of transportation, communication was by telegraph, and the concept of a just and equal society was a pipe dream. (It still may be, yet progress has been made.)

The reality is that a certain percentage of the older population will experience serious health challenges. We all know stories of someone with early-onset Alzheimer's or life-threatening cancer. But beware the trap of averaging, or the risk of turning anecdotes (especially negative ones) from a small population group into a predictive tool. The truth is that an increasing majority of us will experience decades of vigor in the second half of life.

The ideal of retirement – freedom from responsibilities, the pursuit of pleasurable activities – is attractive. But the reality can be a loss of identity and a sense of purpose. A month or six of "doing whatever you want" sounds like heaven. But we are living longer than our parents. Google "concerns of older Americans" and at the top of the list are the needs for community and meaning.

Ironically, our awareness of those needs increases at exactly the time when many of us are moving towards retirement. We leave our purposeful careers at the point in our lives when they mean the most to us, personally, socially, even spiritually.

Why is that? Perhaps the restlessness and lack of satisfaction – the search for meaning – that folks experience isn't a bug in the system. It's a feature. Here's why.

Our cognitive skill set changes with peaks and valleys throughout our entire lives. Some skills gather strength through time, others weaken. The potential for high-functioning brain activity peaks in our 50s and remains high into our 90s (Journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest). Our increased need for meaning is in part the result of changes in our brains, like the ability to synthesize knowledge and generally use our experience in wise and useful ways.

How does this play out in the real world? One study of German auto workers found surprising differences in terms of age. The older workers made more minor mistakes than the younger ones. But the younger workers made far more big and costly mistakes.

It wasn't that the older workers were more cautious. It's that they saw the big picture and were more team-oriented. Experience, wisdom and a higher level of inductive reasoning made the difference. Plus, the work had more intrinsic meaning to them. The younger workers were distracted by extrinsic goals like increasing pay, and the rewards for moving up the corporate ladder.

The need for meaning, for purpose and for connection with others increases as we age. Fortunately, so do our mental and emotional tools for addressing those needs. The issue is that for most of our lives, meaning came from without. Now, like the German auto workers, we must journey to find it first in ourselves, and then share it with the world.

Your mileage may vary, but the trip is worth the effort.

Dennis Thread is a freelance writer, director, and producer in theater, opera, immersive experiences, public ritual, film, TV, and institutional and corporate communications. While at the traditional retirement age, his plans for the "Second Half of Life" include working until the very end. This Springfield native examines culture, demography, and public policy in all its forms from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. dthread@creativethread.com

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