Why the Interest in Purpose?
In the last few years there's been a resurging interest in discovering and living one's true life purpose. One need look no further than Oprah Winfrey's spring 2008, ten-week webinar series that drew over 10 million participants to discuss author Eckhart Tolle's book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose to see that people are looking for answers to the age-old questions of "Why am I here?" or "What is my purpose?"
Some say it may be the effect of 9/11 or the various natural disasters we've experienced - all brought straight to our living rooms in high definition television - that have caused us to look at our own mortality and reflect upon the way we've been living our lives. But our research at the Rethinking Retirement Institute indicates it is the combination of culture, demographics and human nature that are leading to this heightened interest in discovering our personal purpose.
In the mid-1900's psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his hierarchy of human development, in which he saw human beings' needs arranged like a ladder. The most basic needs, at the bottom, were physical - air, water, food, etc. Then came safety needs - security, stability - followed by psychological, or social needs - for belonging, love and acceptance. The fourth "rung" on the ladder included the need to fulfill one's self-esteem through achievement, accomplishment and by garnering the respect of others. Maslow felt that unfulfilled needs lower on the ladder would inhibit the person from climbing to the next step. As he succinctly pointed out, someone dying of thirst quickly forgets their thirst when they have no oxygen.
At the top of Maslow's hierarchy were the self-actualizing needs - the need to fulfill oneself, to realize one's full potential and become all that one is capable of becoming. In short, it is the discovery and living out of one's life purpose. Since the lower needs are required to be met first, however, in the mid-1900's many people either never achieved self-actualization or did so late in life. With advances in sanitation, health care and industrialization however, two things happened: Life expectancies increased and our lower-level needs began to be fulfilled more easily. (Not easily, mind you. Just more easily than before.) As a result, more and more people began to move to the fifth rung on Maslow's ladder and naturally feel the desire to begin to live out their full potential and pursue their life's purpose.
Unfortunately however, society's expectations didn't make the pursuit of one's full potential a high priority. When the Social Security Act was signed in 1935 it validated the concept of retirement in America and - along with the industrialization of America - created the concept of three distinct life stages - education, career and retirement. While Maslow suggested the desire to self-actualize and realize one's full potential typically occurs in one's 40's or 50's, society's expectations were that you would get a job and "climb the corporate ladder" until you reached retirement age somewhere in your 60's.
This natural human desire to fulfill one's full potential was often suppressed in favor of fulfilling the expectations that our culture imposed. Not surprisingly, this led to millions of miserable, dissatisfied and unfulfilled workers. Each of us can probably name someone - a close family member or friend of the family - who worked for years in a job they hated just so that they could one day retire. Retirement became the goal - a finish line to a career that for many was unsatisfying and unfulfilling, and the reward for years of hard work to those who enjoyed their jobs. Early retirement became a badge of success as the definition of retirement changed away from being a time of pure leisure to now becoming one of depicting a time when we can finally do what we've always wanted to do. Today, retirement is viewed as a new beginning, an opportunity to follow our hearts, give back to our communities and fulfill our full potential.
While it took decades for our attitudes about retirement to change, when they did, it seems as though they did so overnight. Why? The answer is simple - the Baby Boomers. With 78 million US citizens (and millions more around the world) now precisely within the age group identified by Maslow as naturally experiencing this need to self-actualize, the baby boomers are changing the way we view retirement. With better health, more energy and a desire to fulfill their individual purpose, baby boomers are setting off to pursue their dreams and (unconsciously to many) self-actualize in retirement.
Obstacles and Opportunities
For many however, the economic realities of the 21st century create obstacles they hadn't bargained on. For mid- and trailing-boomers the future solvency of Social Security, disappearance of company pensions, and low personal savings rate make the financial independence viewed as a prerequisite to retirement an elusive goal. Retirement in the sense of "financially independent and no longer needing to work" will be pushed later and later for many.
The good news is that according to AARP, (American Association of Retired Persons) over 70% of baby boomers plan on working in some capacity in retirement. While some leading edge boomers will do so as a means self-actualizing, others will do so due to financial need.
The key for those who are not financially prepared to retire, is to realize that retirement is not the goal. Discovering and fulfilling one's true life purpose, whether working or retired, is the key to fulfillment and happiness. Finding work that fulfills that purpose will be the trick. Thankfully, the leading edge boomers are the ones who will pave the way for the rest of us to make it happen.
With over 50% of US Government and multiple other industry workers becoming eligible to retire in the next five years, both the public and private sectors will be forced to deal with the coming "brain drain" as these workers leave jobs that they've held for years and begin to pursue other endeavors. As companies and government entities scramble to fill these holes and attract top talent, benefits, compensation and numerous other workforce practices will be revised to attract and retain skilled workers. These new practices will allow even those who financially need to continue to work the opportunity to pursue their purpose through work, or create the work/life balance that will allow them to pursue that purpose outside of work.
Discovering and living out your true life purpose is not just for the retired or financially independent. It's a goal that's available to all of us at any age. Good luck in discovering and living yours.