Third Third Longings

By Mark D. Roberts

March 7, 2023

De Pree Journal

My Fuller friend and colleague, Dr. Scott Cormode, has suggested that one of the best ways we can help people flourish in life is by paying attention to their longings and losses. Today, I’d like to focus on longings. I’ll save losses for another time.

So, let me ask you: As you think about the third third of your life, what are you longing for? What would you like to experience and/or accomplish as you make your way through older adulthood?

Longings in the Third Third Flourishing Cohorts

That question comes right at the beginning of a De Pree Center’s Third Third Flourishing cohort. After introducing ourselves to the others in the cohort, we take time to consider these questions:

What do you long for in this time of your life?
What are your longings for the present?
What are your longings for the future?

As cohort participants share their thoughts in the group, some have a pretty good idea of their third third longings. Others, however, admit they haven’t thought much about this before. Still, others begin to discover deep longings that they really haven’t been aware of before. They find a growing desire to live more intentionally and purposefully in light of their deeper yearnings. Their cohort becomes a context for building a new way of purposeful third third living.

I have engaged in this “longings” exercise several times while leading Third Third cohorts. Each time I find it helpful to remind myself of what I desire most of all in this season of my life. Growing, deep, loving relationships are near the top of my list. But what gets first place is my desire to use faithfully all that God has entrusted to me to serve God and others well. As you might guess, my work with the De Pree Center’s Third Third Initiative is central to that effort. I am eager for this work to glorify God and serve you well.

What Older Adults Want Most of All

Health ranks high on the list of what older adults want. Increasingly, experts in aging are talking more about healthspan than lifespan, though the term “healthspan” is still relatively unfamiliar. “Healthspan” is defined as “the period of one’s life that one is healthy and relatively free from disease.” Folks in the third third of life want to live for a long time if possible, but only if they are healthy.

If you do a Google search on the question “What do older adults want most of all?” you’ll find a common answer. For example, according to Health Affairs, the answer is simple: “Independence – It’s What Older People Want.” The article begins this way:

We already know what older people want. A study from the National Conference of State Legislatures and AARP, as well as other studies, confirm, time and again, that the vast majority of us want to live in our homes and communities as we age, and, if possible, to avoid dependence on others and institutionalization.

As a person in the third third of life, the desire for independence makes sense to me, as does the hope that I can age in place (in a home I choose rather than an assisted living facility). But are independence and self-reliance actually my deepest longings? Or are they more obvious desires, ones I might choose before searching my soul for what I truly want in my third third life? For example, if I had to choose between living independently and making a difference that matters in the world, I think I’d choose the latter.

Evidence from the World’s Largest Retirement Community

Last week I met a man who knows third third life better than just about anyone I’ve met. I was co-leading a roundtable discussion with Amy Hanson, an expert on the church and gerontology, and Chris Holck, senior pastor of Live Oaks Community Church in The Villages. As you may know, The Villages is a retirement community in Florida. In fact, it’s the world’s largest retirement community with over 85,000 residents, all of whom are in the third third of life. The median age in The Villages is 72.2 years.

Chris planted Live Oaks Community Church twelve years ago after sensing a strong call from God to serve folks in The Villages. Under his leadership, Live Oaks focuses on “reaching and unleashing people in, around, and beyond The Villages in Florida with the transforming message of Jesus Christ.” “Unleashing” is not just churchy boilerplate. Live Oaks seeks to mobilize their members into ministry. “We gather to go,” Chris says.

In our roundtable conversation, Chris shared ten things he has learned about the third third folk he serves. Among these things, Chris has seen that his people have “an appetite to serve.” Though they may have moved to The Villages for all the personal and recreational benefits it offers retirees, they still want to make difference in the world. They are eager to serve, even if they want to do so with a measure of flexibility.

Evidence from Developmental Psychology

What Chris has found fits well with evidence from developmental psychology. Those who study the different stages of adult life talk about the desire of older adults for generativity. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “generativity” as “a need to nurture and guide younger people and contribute to the next generation.” We experience generativity through generative relationships with people from younger generations.

The significance of generativity as we age was first emphasized by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. In his earlier writings, he saw generativity as crucial for middle-adulthood, ages 40-65. But as he got older, Erikson recognized that a concern for generativity remains strong beyond 65. Thus, along with his co-author and wife, Joan, Erikson wrote in The Life Cycle Completed, “[I]ndeed, old people can and need to maintain a grand-generative function” (p. 64).

This “grand-generative function” is found in Scripture as well. In Psalm 71, for example, the psalm writer prays,

O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might
to all the generations to come. (71:17-18)

Flourishing adults in the third third of life long to make a difference in the world, especially in a way that improves the lives of younger generations. Often this generative longing is focused on grandchildren, for obvious and good reasons. But it can also be directed to students in a local elementary school, neighborhood kids, young parents at church, and folks in society as a whole. The often-stated truism actually fits many third thirders well. They do want to make the world a better place for those who will come along after them.

So What About You?

As I wrap up this article, I’d like to circle back to where I began, asking you once more:

As you think about the third third of your life,
what are you longing for?

This would be a great question to ask when you’re still in the second third of life because it would help you think in creative ways about your future. But it’s an important question for any season of life, even if you’re well into your third third.

When I was a young pastor, I once prayed with an older man named Fred. He was, I believe, in his late seventies. He came to me for prayer because he felt as if he had squandered his life. He had not been living for any larger purpose and feared that he had missed his chance. As I prayed with Fred, I sensed both his sadness and his hopefulness.

In the months that followed our time of prayer, Fred began paying more attention to his longing to make a difference that mattered, especially with younger people. He got involved in a ministry of our church to underserved Hispanic kids in a neighborhood near our church. Fred lived full bore into his generativity, giving his time and his love to these young people. As this happened, Fred’s generally dour demeanor was transformed. I can still remember his glowing smile as he talked about his relationships with the kids in the neighborhood. He had discovered his longing for generative impact and he was enjoying every minute of living it out with his young friends.

No matter where you are in life, no matter how you’ve been living, there’s still time for you to discover your deeper longings. These are not only the longings that emerge from your own heart, but also the longings God has planted there.

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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