Society is aging fast. Right now, 17 percent of the American population (56 million people) is age 65 and over, compared to just four percent in 1900. By 2040, 14 percent of the population will be age 85 and over.
We are used to thinking of children as our future, but what would it mean to think of old people as our future?
To answer that question positively, we must first consider this: What’s the point of growing old?
A Doctor Answers
Geriatrician William Thomas has thought a lot about why we grow old. In What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World, he encourages us to look at individual life in a broader historical context. From this perspective, we see that old age in the 21st century is a new stage in human development from which society benefits.
Here’s how. As the largest generation of old people in the history of humankind, those of us who are age 65 and older today are healthier, wealthier, better educated, and more socially engaged than any group of old people the world has ever seen. We baby boomers have challenged outmoded conventions and long-held social beliefs, and many of us have pursued alternative lifestyles, demonstrating flexibility and an openness to change.
With age, we are also helping to shift the cultural focus from what Thomas calls “DOING-being” to “BEING-doing,” which is a far more enlightened way of living on the planet.
While Doing and Being are both necessary to human flourishing, they must be balanced over time. Doing involves working in and manipulating the physical world. Being involves understanding and sustaining positive relationships with those things that are invisible and intangible but nonetheless essential to well-being – our thoughts, feelings and motivations, our inner lives, and our inherent connections with other people, animals, nature, the earth, God and the numinous.
In healthy societies, people work, achieve, and advance in the world, but their connections to each other and the environment, along with the wellness of all living things, hold the highest value. This is what Thomas calls “BEING-doing.”
Since the Industrial Revolution, however, American society has emphasized “DOING-being,” characterized by an unhealthy obsession with things in the physical world and neglect or denial of the non-physical aspects of life.
As a result, people unconsciously inflict all kinds of pain and suffering on themselves, each other, and the environment. As spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle sees it, “the pollution of the planet is only an outward reflection of an inner psychic pollution” (The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, 1999).
All is not lost, however. We have a great resource in older people, who can show us how to live more consciously and create a better balance between Being and Doing.
One Woman’s Experience
In a recent CNBC article, journalist Janet Blaser writes about her struggle to find meaning in later life (“A 67-year-old American shares what retirement is ‘really’ like – with no work and all that free time,” 2023). In search of a simpler life, Blaser left a stressful career and moved from California to Mazatlán, Mexico.
At first, she found the transition surprisingly difficult. Having left her circle of colleagues and long-time friends, Blaser felt adrift and lonely. Without the foundation of work and community, she was no longer sure who she was or what she wanted in life.
It took several years to shift from the “doing” mentality that had dominated her previous life to “being” in retirement, but she is now much happier. She spends her days walking the beach, meditating, practicing yoga, meeting with friends, reading, writing, putzing around the yard, and caring for her beloved cats.
Blaser finds her daily routines calming, comforting and “deeply satisfying.” Because of her inner peace, she can be more present in the world. “I may not be able to donate millions of dollars to charity,” she says, “but I can spread love and happiness. Even just a smile at a fellow beach-walker is a worthwhile exchange to me.”
The secret to a happy life in retirement, she says, is to “learn to be present and in the moment.”
We are not the Roles we Play
When we identify with what we do in the world, often our thoughts and behaviors are dictated by those role identities (what we think we “should” do or say). The roles we play limit how we think about ourselves, how we interact with others, and how others relate to us.
But in retirement and later life, we leave behind many of our previous roles, either by choice or necessity. At first, it can feel like we have lost our identity and have no purpose. But if we remain open to new possibilities, our losses can become liberating and even empowering. We are free to find more authentic ways of living.
Eckart Tolle explains that “times of loss and transition can awaken us to who we really are – “the Being behind the human, a field of pure potentiality rather than something that is already defined” through established roles and responsibilities.
In other words, “our very Presence becomes our identity.” In this state of Being, we naturally have a “transformational effect” on our environment and whoever we meet (A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, 2005).
Learning in Retirement
At 58, I retired from my career as an English professor. It was a role I had relished for 30 years. Like Blaser, at first I felt a great sense of loss, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. So I filled the void with more work roles. In the first five years, I took three part-time jobs and a consulting position. They helped make the transition easier and added structure and purpose to my days.
I am now 68, and I no longer work for pay, but I do hold two volunteer positions, which give meaning and purpose to my life. It has taken me this long to feel like I have “settled into” retirement and can enjoy my freedom from work responsibilities. I have often wondered, though, if I’m in a new developmental stage, what am I supposed to be learning?
Based on my reading in gerontology and spirituality over the years, I think I’ve found the answer. According to Eckart Tolle, our highest purpose as human beings is this: “To make the Now the primary focus of your life.” This gets easier over the years and, in fact, may be the reason why we grow old.
So I have decided to make living in the Now my purpose in the years I have left. It will be a challenging spiritual practice for me.
But It’s good to know that I’m not alone in this endeavor. I’m part of a whole generation of elders who, together, are changing the world, just by being ourselves.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers for a local animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.