The Paradox of Purpose in the Third Third of Life

By Mark D. Roberts

July 1, 2021

De Pree Journal

A few months ago I wrote an article for the De Pree Center’s Third Third Journal called “Purpose is Key to Third Third Flourishing.” In this piece I summarized briefly some of the voluminous research related to purpose and aging. Scholars throughout the world have been studying this connection for some time, leaving behind an impressive pile of academic articles as well as a few popular ones.

Since I wrote that article, I have been discovering even more research on purpose and aging. Much of it makes the point that having a sense of purpose is absolutely essential if we are going to flourish as we get older. For example, in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development I found an article called, “Aging With Purpose: Systematic Search and Review of Literature Pertaining to Older Adults and Purpose.”[1] (You can find the abstract here. For the full article you need to have access to an academic library.) This article summarized the findings from 31 different studies of purpose and aging. It found the following benefits for older adults who have a strong sense of purpose in life:

Physical benefits included better health and functional status maintenance, greater cognitive function, increased physical activity and positive health behaviors, enhanced stress recovery, and longevity. Purpose is also associated with a lower incidence of AD [Alzheimer’s Disease] and mild cognitive impairment and reduced risk for cardiovascular chronic health conditions. Psychosocial correlates in the review include greater life satisfaction, lower death anxiety, and reduced depression severity or incidence.

Now, when I read that list, I think to myself, “Well, those are things I want to have in the third third of life, so I need to have a guiding purpose for my life, that’s for sure.”

So, the good news is that if you have purpose guiding your life as you get older, chances are you will be healthier, happier, and more productive. But the news isn’t all good, I’m sad to say. Research also gives us some bad news.

The bad news can be found in an article by Martin Pinquart in Ageing International, “Creating and Maintaining Purpose in Life in Old Age: A Meta-Analysis.”[2] Pinquart, who surveyed 70 studies on purpose and aging, writes, ““In the meta-analysis, we found empirical evidence for an age-associated decline of purpose in life, which became stronger in old age.” There are several reasons for this decline in purpose, including: age-associated breaks that come with retirement and death, the lack of clearly defined roles, norms, and opportunities for older adults, and negative age-stereotypes.

A popular article in Psychology Today underscores Pinquart’s conclusion. In “The Pernicious Decline in Purpose in Life with Old Age,” Author Stanley Maclen observes that many older adults lack purpose because what they had once hoped to achieve seems “realistically unattainable.” Like Pinquart, Maclen also notes taht “purposeful roles for older adults are largely lacking in today’s Western societies.” When you’re young, everyone expects you to fill the roles of student, worker, productive member of society, and so forth. But when you’re older, such roles are less common and influential.

Many of my conversations with people in the third third of life confirm what the research shows about purpose and aging. Those who have a guiding purpose for their lives seem to live with greater vigor, enthusiasm, and fruitfulness. But many admit to not having such a strong purpose. There was a time in life when they knew why they were on earth. They were to build a career, get married, raise children, help out in school or church, etc. But once these earlier purposes have been fulfilled, it’s harder to replace them. What goals should someone have at 65? At 75? At 85? At 95? Answers aren’t so easily found, especially when the culture doesn’t supply them.

So, the paradox of purpose in the third third of life is this: Living with purpose is absolutely essential for flourishing as we get older. Yet, for most people, a sense of purpose declines with age. 

The lack of purpose among many older adults is a problem, to be sure. But I believe it is also a huge opportunity for the church. After all, Christian faith gives to all followers of Jesus a clear purpose – or set of purposes, actually – for living. Of all people, Christians should know why they are on earth. The fact that many don’t really know this is something the church needs to address. We can offer to believers and non-believers alike the good news that God has a compelling for our lives. This purpose can be found in Scripture as well as in the testimonies of Christians who are living with purpose each day.

I recognize that what I’ve just said deserves more attention. Soon I will write another article on the biblical understanding of our life’s purpose. For now, let me close by citing two passages from Ephesians that spell out life’s purpose for all Christians:

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:11-12)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Eph 2:8-10).


[1] Justine Irving, Sandra Davis, Aileen Collier, “Aging with Purpose: Systematic Search and Review of Literature Pertaining to Older Adults and Purpose,” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 2017, Vol 85(4), 403-437.

[2] Pinquart, M. Creating and maintaining purpose in life in old age: A meta-analysis. Ageing Int. 27, 90–114 (2002).


Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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