The Power of Purposeful Aging

First Republic Bank
May 7, 2020

An interview with Paul Irving, Chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.


People often think about aging and planning for the future in terms of the negatives: what health issues might emerge, or whether they have an adequate financial cushion to survive. Instead, by taking a more balanced view on aging, we can flip the script and recognize our later years as being full of new opportunities.

That’s one of the key messages shared by Paul Irving, Chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, Chairman of, and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology. Not only an advocate for shifting our perceptions of longevity, Irving is also a perfect example of its possibilities: he shifted into his “encore” career after spending more than 30 years as a lawyer. Now, he’s a leader in the field of aging and the opportunities that can result from adjusting our mindset.

First Republic had the opportunity to speak with Irving for his thoughts on purposeful aging, smart financial planning, and learning to appreciate the contributions of society’s oldest cohort.

How can we shift our focus to consider the positive aspects of aging?

Taking a balanced view doesn't mean sugarcoating the challenges. Both the U.S. and global populations are aging, a product of increased longevity and extraordinarily low birthrates. The average lifespan has approximately doubled in the last 150 years as a product of advancements in medical science, sanitation and safety. But all of the norms that have evolved over centuries, and all of our cultural conventions and expectations about our life course, have been based on an expectation of much shorter lives.

The good news is science and public health are doing their part, and the outcomes have generally been good. Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic and the prevalence of chronic illness underscore the health risks for older adults. But aging is about much more than disease and decline. To be clear, while aging may be a significant risk factor, it is not a disease — it’s a blessing that more people are living longer, and with better health. The paradox is that we really haven’t figured out what to do with these extra 20, 30 or 40 years that the current generation has been given.

The old way of thinking about three stages of life — growing and learning, work and family, and decline and death — is being disrupted in important ways. Rather than rushing so much, people should think about how, with longer lives, they can learn, work, contribute and engage throughout life — and for more years than in generations past.

With more years to plan for, how has the notion of retirement changed?

Expectations for retirement have really changed and are continuing to evolve. The notion of moving into an age-segregated community with a cafeteria, recreation center, and shuffleboard court, and waiting to die, is not the objective of an increasing number of older adults. People are digging in more and more, and seeking to stay actively involved. All of the data suggest that older adults want and need to work longer. They do it because they want ongoing engagement, a sense of purpose, and often because they need additional  income.

In the U.S., we’ve moved over the past few decades into a retirement system that is principally self-funded, and that shift has not worked well. The current generation of retirees and pre-retirees is typically underinvested and often doesn’t have adequate savings beyond Social Security.

The positive side is that older adults are our only growing natural resource. They are working more, volunteering more, and increasingly interested in remaining actively engaged in their communities. The stereotypes, clichés and negative expectations about older adults and their productivity should not be generalized. They are a wellspring of experience and wisdom — an underutilized resource — and as diverse as any other cohort.

You often talk about “purposeful aging” — what are the benefits of this approach on health and longevity?

Purpose is something that is defined in one’s own way, but common denominators include a desire for some kind of productive contribution that leads to a sense of meaning in one’s life. It’s often the thing that drives us when times get tough. Becca Levy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University, found in her research that people who saw their aging in a positive light lived on average 7.5 years longer. That’s as significant a factor as diet and exercise. And that positive perspective relates in many ways to a sense of purpose.

 When it comes to health and well-being, what’s above the neck is likely just as critical as what’s below the neck. It’s so important for people to find things to do that have them feeling productive. I suspect that all of our parents told us that attitude is everything. They also likely said that we should leave the world a better place than we found it. If we listened to and acted on that very good advice, we’d not only do more for the world, we’d also enhance our own health and sense of well-being.

Here’s another way to think about it: Marathon runners will tell you that late in a race they hit a wall. They fight through the pain, keep at it, and then at the end of the race, something amazing happens. They actually speed up. It’s the “kick”. In a sense, that’s the point here. I think that the most valuable thing we have is time. As there’s less of it, as we’re nearer to the end and our time shrinks, the value of our time should go up. With fewer years ahead than behind, using our time meaningfully and purposefully should become more important than ever. Of course, there are challenges and hard issues that come with aging that we all have to fight through, but life also becomes all the more precious.

What’s your advice to people who are in the planning stages of this next phase of life? How can they identify their purpose?

This is very much the nature of the conversation that we can have with our financial advisors. I believe in planning. And the reality is that we shouldn’t just be planning financially, but about how we’re going to live our lives.

For one thing, there’s a real danger in retirement in that our relationship networks shrink. In adult life, we tend to meet people in school and at work, and become friends with our kids’ parents. Then over time we might leave our jobs; our kids are grown; people start to move away or die. That’s why we all should consider how we can build new relationship networks and meet new people.

I’m a huge believer in lifelong learning. It not only leads to challenge, knowledge, and new careers and opportunities, but also to new relationships and friendships.

I recommend that retirement, if we decide to retire at all, should be a transition over a period of time. Take time to adjust and explore. In this latter part of life, we should not just be preparing for the end, but for a new journey — for new work, new learning, new relationships and potentially the most important contributions we will ever make. It’s crazy not to plan for this shift. People in their 50s may still have half their lives in front of them. There’s still so much time to capitalize on our talents, and do the best work of our lives, just maybe in a different way.

How do finances play a role in purposeful aging?

People who are fortunate enough to muse about their purpose — and new adventures — are still a relatively small segment of our population. There are great inequities in our society, and a considerable part of our population just doesn’t have the good fortune to think about these things. I strongly believe that we must address our disparities and enable many more to live safe, healthy and purposeful lives.

But for those of us who are fortunate enough to save and invest, purpose should be a motivator. If we think that the back of life has no possibilities, then why save for it? On the other hand, if we see the potential to do things throughout life — travel, learn, have adventures, start new relationships —we’re more likely to make the investments early on to enable those possibilities. It’s a positive message. Instead of thinking gloomy thoughts about aging, say this: we’re blessed with the opportunities that more years provide, and this could be the best, most rewarding and most meaningful time of our lives.

Given the current environment, do you have any advice for those under stay-at-home orders, who may feel helpless?

At a time in which we’re isolating, it’s inevitable to have periods of sadness and loneliness. But calling friends and family, using this as an opportunity to touch base with people we haven’t talked to in a long time, reaching out to those who are alone, can help. I like to think of what we’re going through as physically distancing but socially connecting. Let’s use this time to connect even more.

Consider writing — we’re living history right now. Young people will be talking with their grandkids about this time. There are also many opportunities for engagement online — taking classes, “visiting” museums offering virtual tours.

We’ll get through this with grit and will and patience. History has proven us resilient and adaptable, science and public health give us hope, and we’ll survive this too.

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