For millions of years, large tectonic plates slowly moved and ground against each other far below the sea that we now call the Pacific Ocean. As these forces converged, masses of land rose up and ultimately surfaced as beautiful Polynesia. So it is with longevity.
Throughout 99% of human history, the average life expectancy was under 18 years. Over the past few centuries, medical, economic, social and demographic forces have been shifting and grinding against each other. From this interplay, the average life expectancy has vaulted from 47 in 1900 to around 78 today (albeit with some temporary backsliding during COVID-19) and a new, uncharted stage of life has risen to the surface.
Globally, more than a billion people are now over 60 and, incredibly, that number will double by 2050. What should this new cohort of modern elders be doing with their third age? What roles might they play in their families, communities and society at large with their extra years?
What to Do With Our Extra Years
Should they seek to be youthful or useful — or maybe both? Most importantly, what could be the purpose for all the underutilized experience and talent of a billion elders? And might the timing be right for a whole new vision of both aging and elderhood?
In the 47 years I’ve been studying aging, older adults and retirement in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of confusion among retirees regarding what they should be doing with their newfound decades of free time. Different than our grandparents who imagined they’d only have a couple of years post-work before their expiration date, it’s dawning on many of us that we now need to reimagine our lives, restructure our time and maybe even find a new purpose.
“Maybe what’s needed now is another grand-scale social revolution to make better use of our multiplying legions of elders and give them greater purpose in their third age.”
How have we been doing? Not so well. Over the past decade, the average American retiree watched 47+ hours of television a week, while less than a quarter volunteered at all.
How have we gotten to where we are today with such an uninspired vision of the purpose of older men and women?
In the early decades of the 20th century, developed nations began introducing the new idea of retirement to give older adults a short, subsidized break after a life of hard work — and to make room for legions of unemployed young workers. On the day Social Security was introduced, the average life expectancy was 63 and the unemployment rate was an unnerving 25%. Social Security was an ingenious social, economic and labor intervention. Back then, not much was asked of older folks and “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary” defined retirement as a time “to disappear,” “to go away.”
Then in the early 1970s, with the arrival of Sun City, Ariz. and other retirement conclaves, the idea was promoted that maturity was meant to be the “golden years” of life, a time for fun and play 24/7, like an extended vacation. Thanks to improvements in medicine and self-care, longevity was blooming and more people were aging more healthfully and youthfully.
Like a piece of taffy, retirement was being stretched longer and longer.
Maybe what’s needed now is another grand-scale social revolution to make better use of our multiplying legions of elders and give them greater purpose in their third age.
In a new study titled “The Four Pillars of the New Retirement: What a Difference a Year Makes,” conducted by my firm Age Wave, along with Edward Jones and Harris Interactive, we uncovered the awakening tremors of a massive untapped force for social good.
How Retirees Want to Spend Their Time
Eighty-six percent of all adults and 89% of retirees now say, “There should be more ways for retirees to put their talents and knowledge to use for the benefit of their communities and society.” When probed about whether this volunteerism would require that they give up their freedom to relax and have fun, retirees indicated they would ideally like to volunteer or work pro bono a non-back-breaking 3.3 hours per week on average, which would be nearly four times the current retiree volunteer rate.
However, they also said they need more direction, guidance, and user-friendly resources to help them connect with volunteer opportunities that leverage their experience, talents and interests.
Just as the Peace Corps was conceived and activated by JFK and Sargent Shriver 60 years ago, it appears that an army of new older helpers — a massive elder corps — is just waiting for the opportunities, infrastructure and social nudge to get them going.
“Imagine all the potential good that could come from 70 million U.S. retirees each volunteering 3.3 hours a week.”
Imagine all the potential good that could come from 70 million U.S. retirees each volunteering 3.3 hours a week. Over the next 20 years, that would be a total of 238 billion hours. With the value of volunteering usually set at just over $28 an hour, this would translate to an incredible $6.8 trillion contribution to society of energy, brains, experience, insights, skills and wisdom.
Think about it. We could have thousands of thriving schools and nonprofits boosted by retirees’ savvy, life experience and connections; millions of disadvantaged students on the path to higher education thanks to the loving support of elder mentors and sponsors; fragile elders in nursing homes looked after by healthy elder advocates; countless young workers and parents benefiting from being coached and mentored by older adults; more widespread social justice thanks to legions of elder watchdogs and whistleblowers and thousands of communities blossoming from new intergenerational interdependencies.
Born in 1950, I’m now an elder myself and while I find full-time work less appetizing than I used to, I have no interest in being put out to pasture. With all of the experience and wisdom people around my age have accumulated, we have the ability to mindfully assess society, help heal what ails it and plan for a healthy, safe and equitable future.
The scope of this potential is enormous and unprecedented in human history.
From this perspective, modern elders could serve in a generous and generative role, and by so doing, we could avert the growing perception that older adults are financial drains, social outcasts or “OK Boomers.” Instead, we could serve as a living bridge between yesterday, today, and tomorrow — a critical evolutionary role that no other age group is as well-suited to perform.
Where to Volunteer
In addition to reaching out to nonprofits, houses of worship, libraries and recreation centers in your community to see if they need assistance, here are some additional resources to join the social force for good:
- The federal government’s AmeriCorps Seniors matches over 200,000 volunteers each year with causes they care about.
- VolunteerMatch and JustServe help anyone looking to volunteer find opportunities, either locally or virtually.
- Encore.org is a wonderful platform that offers resources and fellowships for older adults wanting to have an impact career post-retirement.
- The federal government’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) provides grants to qualified agencies and organizations for the dual purpose of engaging men and women 55 and older in volunteer service to meet critical community needs while providing a high quality experience that will enrich the lives of volunteers.
- AARP has several volunteer programs, including Experience Corps for those wanting to mentor young students, and several programs to assist aging adults.
- There are several matchmaking sites for those wanting to serve as a mentor: Eldera, Encore.org’s Gen2Gen Mentoring Connect, MENTOR and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
- Catchafire and Taproot Foundation are skills-based volunteer matching platforms for those wanting to use their professional expertise to help nonprofits.
- Road Scholar (formerly known as Elderhostel) and the Peace Corps let older adults volunteer while traveling abroad.
- If you’re looking for more inspiration to give back, check out these books: “With Purpose: Redefining Money, Family, Work, Retirement and Success,” which I wrote with Daniel J. Kadlec; “The Giving Way to Happiness” by Jenny Santi; “How to Live Forever” by Encore.org’s Marc Freedman and “Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?” by Richard J. Leider and David Shapiro.
– Ken Dychtwald
Ken Dychtwald is a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and a psychologist, gerontologist, CEO of Age Wave and author of 18 books, including his two new books “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age” and his memoir, “Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life.”
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