As a lofty and ethereal construct, many individuals might associate purpose in life with factors found in old age, such as wisdom, experience, and maturity. Yet, while it is true that children and young adolescents typically do not possess a sense of purpose, it is equally as true that adults tend to feel less and less purposeful as they age.
A recently accumulating body of research (more than 70 studies) regarding purpose across the lifespan has evidenced a surprising and remarkably consistent pattern: the sense of purpose in life tends to peak during late adolescence/young adulthood and then actually begins to decline throughout middle adulthood and drops sharply through late adulthood.
Why the drop in purpose? Researchers believe that adults begin to feel a diminished sense of purposeful pursuit and experience due to the gradual changes in social roles that accompany increasing age. Consider for a moment an individual in his or her 55th year. It is possible that this person has already achieved the goals that previously imbued their life with purpose and meaning. For example, this person is likely to have already reached the pinnacle of his or her career. At the same time, children may have already left the home, causing once prominent and meaningful roles as parents and caregivers to become less salient. Finally, this person may have also developed the sense that certain purposeful aims no longer seem realistically attainable. If and when the roles from which older adults had once derived meaning disappear, purpose presumably fades.
Sociologists have noted that purposeful roles for older adults are largely lacking in today’s Western societies. Termed “the structural lag problem” (Riley et al., 1994), the increase in the healthy lifespan of adults has not been equally met by changes in social norms and institutions aimed at channeling aging adults’ passions, goals, and interests. Today’s “purpose” for older adults is retirement; a domain much less suited for meaningful goals and contributions.
This decline in purpose with old age is particularly troubling, given that purpose has been shown to play a key role in markers of physical health and well- being during the later years. Research from the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center has found that people who have a greater sense of purpose in life are more likely to have slower rates of mental decline, even as plaques and tangles develop in their brains. Purpose has also been linked to decreased mortality and happiness in old age (Boyle, Barnes, Buchman, & Bennett, 2009).
Importantly, studies have also examined factors that tend to buffer the age-graded declines of purpose in life. Unsurprisingly, results highlight protective factors as those that center around social contribution and inclusion.
Preventing older adults from withdrawing socially appears to be an imperative in preserving a sense of purpose. As a sort of double-edged sword, modern technology will likely continue to increase the age span of our older adults while simultaneously crafting technologies that might make them feel detached from the broader social world. Practitioners face challenges in the coming decades in facilitating older adults’ passions, goals, and aspirations in the context of our hierarchical age-based society.
Boyle P. A., Barnes L. L., Buchman A. S., Bennett D. A. (2009) Purpose in life is associated with mortality among community-dwelling older persons. Psychosomatic medicine, 71, 574–9.
Riley, M. W., Kahn, R. L., & Foner, A. (1994). Age and structural lag: Society’s failure to provide meaningful opportunities in work, family, and leisure. New York: Wiley.