There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. —Nelson Mandela
Although hard to believe, for 99% of human history, the average life expectancy was under 18 years. Of course, there have always been some 60, 70 and 80 year-olds, but in truth there were very few. However, thanks to a century of remarkable medical advances and with further mind-bending geroscience breakthroughs just around the corner, the 100+ year life is becoming the new normal. Suddenly, humans are contending with a fundamental shift that happened more or less overnight.
In James Michener’s Hawaii, he explains how for millions of years, large tectonic plates were slowly moving and grinding against each other far below the sea that we now call the Pacific Ocean. As these forces converged, masses of land started to rise up and ultimately surfaced as magnificent Polynesia. And so it is with human longevity. For hundreds of thousands of years, medical, economic, social, and demographic forces have been shifting, evolving, and grinding against each other. From this interplay, there are now more than one billion people in the world who are age 60+, and incredibly, that number is set to swiftly double by 2050.
As a result, a new “third age” of life is emerging that is too often viewed as a dire problem rather than as humanity’s remarkable new frontier. The idea of a third age of life is a concept borrowed from the European tradition of adult education. In life’s first age, from birth to approximately thirty, the primary tasks of men and women center on biological development, learning, partnering, and procreating. During the early millennia of human history, the average life expectancy of most people wasn’t much higher than the end of the first age, and as a result, the predominant thrust of society was oriented toward these most basic drives. In the second age, from about thirty to sixty, the concerns of adult life focus on the formation of family, child-rearing, and productive work. Until the last century, most people couldn’t expect to live much beyond the second age, and societies were centered on the concerns of this period of life.
However, with our longer lives, and the coming of the boomer “age wave,” an uncharted and potentially magnificent new third age of life is unfolding, which brings new freedoms, new responsibilities and new purposes to adulthood. First, with the children grown and many of life’s basic adult tasks either well under way or already accomplished, this period allows the further development of emotional intelligence and maturity, wisdom, and one’s own personal sense of purpose. The third age has another appealing dimension: there’s an abundance of time affluence with countless opportunities to try new things—and to contribute to society in new ways.
In the next twenty years, boomer third agers will have 2.5 trillion hours of leisure time to fill in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, we’re looking at fifty trillion hours of time affluence. This raises a seismic question: who are we going to be and what are we going to do with all this extra life? From my 45 years of research and study as a psychologist, gerontologist and CEO of Age Wave, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of confusion among retirees regarding what they should be doing with all their newfound free time. Last year the average American retiree watched forty-eight hours of television a week, and more than three quarters of America’s 68 million retirees don’t volunteer at all. Maybe if we all cut a few hours off our weekly TV intake and gave a little more of ourselves back to our communities, we’d all be better off.
Right before COVID, I spoke at a conference at which actor Harrison Ford was also a presenter. During his session, Ford, an outspoken environmental activist, stimulated the audience by proclaiming that young people all over the world should plant millions of trees to help save the planet. Everyone cheered – as it seemed like such a good idea. As it turned out, I had a private one-on-one meeting with Ford afterward. I told him that there were now one billion men and women in the world over the age of 60, and nobody has tasked them with much of anything. I suggested that maybe the world’s older adults should plant millions of trees to help save the planet. And, I said, “Think of the meta-message. To see older men and women planting trees in whose shade they might never sit would make an entirely different statement. Or even better, maybe old and young people should plant trees together.” We both smiled when he responded, “Ken, I had never thought of that. What a great idea!”
And there surely is a need for the contributions of third agers, particularly during this high-anxiety period in history: so many in our communities really need more involvement from grown-ups. Rather than have us all move off the playing field, they need our help. They need us to share—not hoard—our life experience and perspective, as coaches, mentors, teachers, guides, and surrogate parents and grandparents. We should also reach out to people in other neighborhoods and even other parts of the world. And taking a cue from Greta Thunberg, it would be wonderful if we elders also concerned ourselves with future generations, not yet born. They deserve a planet with a healthy environment, readily accessible drinking water, the opportunity to learn and grow and as many chances to unleash their curiosity and explore their potentials as possible. In this third age, we need to focus not simply on striving to be youthful but also to be useful. How can we be most helpful to our children – maybe all children (not just our own), to our communities, and to the future?
The historically unique combination of longevity, time affluence, and wisdom produces unprecedented potential for elders to be seen not as social outcasts but as a living bridge between yesterday, today, and tomorrow — a critical evolutionary role that no other age group can perform.