The Purpose of "Work" in the Second Half of Life
Individuals in mid-life and beyond are increasingly viewing retirement not as a time to relax, but as a time to explore their potential. It was Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, who gave us the term, “self-actualization.” He called it man’s desire for fulfillment, “to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
For many, the path to self-actualization is through their “work”—which should be defined as the productive activities, paid or unpaid, that gives their lives meaning and a sense of purpose. Helen Harkness wrote that linking work to the need for meaning has been a natural evolution:
“For the generation following the Depression and World War II, a ‘job’—stable lifetime work that pays the bills—was the goal. Later, the achievers focused on a ‘career’ in a particular profession such as law, banking, medicine, teaching, or management as the means to success. Today we are adding another dimension: discovering our ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’—work with a deeper purpose or meaning, assuring us that each has something unique to offer.”
This new view of the purpose of “work” is particularly important to the millions of Baby Boomers who are approaching or living in the second half of their lives. A number of surveys have shown that the majority of Baby Boomers plan to work beyond the time they are eligible to retire. In Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life, contributing author Ed Speedling wrote:
“Many individuals feel compelled to work for financial or psychological or social reasons, or for all three, yet they want to choose how they work and what they work for. Instead of liberation from labor entirely, they see an extra measure of freedom—in many cases to swap money for meaning, to do work that they couldn’t afford to do earlier but can do now that children have grown and other ambitions have waned.”
Similarly, in her book I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What It Was, Barbara Sher explained that the first step to finding work that “fits” is to understand the connection between doing what we love and doing something worth doing.
She wrote that it is at this intersection that we will find meaning. In fact, because self-actualization is at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of needs, Barb Sher reminds us all of how lucky we are to live in a free and prosperous society: “It is a tribute to the success of our culture that so many of us have the freedom to search for our own life’s work.”