For half a century, we’ve been sold the idea of later life as second youth—a time for leisure, often lived out in age-graded playgrounds. This model represents a departure from centuries of human experience. As the first generation likely to live decades beyond the traditional “golden years,” we are at a turning point, on the brink of a social revolution that will create new models for later life and intergenerational collaboration.
The plain truth is we’ve gotten the generational issue exactly wrong. Older people shouldn’t selfsegregate in age-restricted communities. Instead, we should be there for the people who actually are young. They are our future, and older adults have the life experience, wisdom, and empathy to support them. So instead of generational warfare, I expect to see a flowering of cross-generational collaboration—and the harnessing of the nation’s greatest natural human resource, experienced adults who want to be the grown-ups they themselves counted on when they were young.
This longing is grounded in human nature. The drive to invest in younger people grows with the passage of time. Erik Erikson said the hallmark of successful development in this stage of life could be encapsulated in the phrase “I am what survives of me.” When more years are behind us than ahead, we understand, at a fundamental level, that human beings are designed to pass on essential truths from generation to generation. Simply put, “biology flows downhill” from older to younger, as a river runs toward the sea, according to George Vaillant, a human development expert at Harvard Medical School. We must cease fighting (human) nature and instead, channel it—to make the world a more just place and to improve prospects for future generations.
But it’s not enough for biology to flow downhill. Society must do so as well. The challenge now is to transform this potential into practice and to extend generativity beyond family structures and into communities, to bridge age, class, and race. This call must be met with an expansion of opportunity and innovation—from service efforts through second acts focused on education and related work—that will transform desire into concrete action.
We have rerouted the river of life, squandering the opportunity for older and younger people to connect in mutually beneficial and nurturing ways. Now is the time to return that river to its natural course. This revolution can restore life’s natural order and create a new model for the post-midlife period that embraces the spirit of purpose and legacy—a new way of living.
The essay was published in the report titled The Power of Purpose: Culture Change and the New Demography.