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Paying It Forward

Baby boomers have a “deep-seated desire to make a difference.”

“When someone does you a big favor, don't pay it back . . . pay it forward” went the tagline for the 2000 film Pay It Forward, a sentiment to which many baby boomers are subscribing as they cruise through their third act of life. Not that long ago for millions of Americans, reaching one’s 60s meant a retirement party and then a cushy life in Florida or some other warm place. That model has imploded over the past generation or so, as those ending their full-time careers choose more ambitious pursuits than water aerobics and canasta. Today, boomers are altering the fundamental concept of what was known as “seniority,” a function of living longer and the steep cost of doing so. One more factor is making boomers’ later years different from those of any previous generation: their “deep-seated desire to make a difference,” as Dan Kadlec, co-author of A New Purpose, described it. Rather than feel that retirement was payback for a lifetime of hard work, boomers see un-retirement as an ideal time of life to pay it forward, flipping the idea of older age on its head.

The idea and practice of paying it forward recognizes the boomerang-like good karma associated with helping others if one can. Giving back is already becoming a principal activity among boomers, specifically some form of passing on what one has learned in life so far. Offering expertise in a particular area to a younger generation or others in need can be an immensely rewarding experience, which can lead to a feeling of completion or coming full circle. Paying it forward will become much more structured and organized in the years ahead, I foresee, with millions of boomers to soon be looking for a new mission in life offering meaning and purpose.

Kadlec, along with aging expert Ken Dychwald, the co-author of A New Purpose, have a keen sense of why boomers want to pay it forward and how they are likely to do so. After exiting one’s first career, 60-somethings might take some time to enjoy the good life, whether that means traveling, visiting grandkids, or pursuing a particular passion. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that there is still a long road ahead, and lowering one’s golf handicap by a few strokes is not as rewarding an achievement as it might have once seemed. Members of a generation trained to accomplish great things in life need a compelling reason to get up in the morning, which is where paying it forward comes in.

In their book, Kadlec and Dychwald employ the phrase “going from success to significance” to explain the shift from an emphasis on making money to becoming an agent of change. “The idea is to find a pastime with intrinsic rewards,” Kadlec wrote in Time in 2013, with any number of options available to making that happen. For many, giving back “is what the new model is all about,” he explained, a more communitarian undertaking than the personally defined endeavors of working and raising a family. There actually may be a biological component to the urge to pay it forward; some of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century, including Abraham Maslow and Eric Erikson, have argued that humans are hard-wired to give back in their later years, part of the evolutionary process. Taking the initiative by creating a resource by which boomers can pay it forward would be a wise move, as giving back in some way will represent a big part of their lives until they are simply no longer able to do so.