October 4, 2021 • Third Third Journal
People in the third third of life have prodigious potential for flourishing, that is, for experiencing personal well-being while making a meaningful difference in the world. There is ample evidence for this conclusion, including: personal examples, academic research, scientific studies, and the witness of Scripture. Psalm 92 puts it succinctly, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree . . . they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap” (vv. 12-14).
This vision of flourishing “in old age” is being realized by millions of adults in the third third of life. But millions upon millions of older adults are not flourishing. There are a variety of reasons for this distressing reality, including poverty, disability, and depression. But tens of millions of people in the third third of life are, for the most part, physically vital and mentally sharp. They are talented, experienced, and wise. They have potential to live full and fruitful lives. Yet they are missing out on the promise of Psalm 92. They are not flourishing or producing fruit in old age. Something is holding them back.
I believe one of the main things that is preventing adults in the third third of life from flourishing is the prevalence of negative narratives about aging. If you begin to look for them, you don’t have to look very hard. You can find them in news sources, social media, and all over the Internet. You can hear them in casual conversations, workplace deliberations, and popular jokes. These narratives are often encapsulated in language we associate with aging. If, for example, I forget a name and say, “I’m having a senior moment,” I’m reinforcing a narrative about the capabilities of older adults. If I add a wise insight in a conversation at work, why wouldn’t I think, “I’m having a senior moment”? The phrase “senior moment” epitomizes a one-sided, negative narrative about aging.
The pervasiveness of negative cultural narratives for older adulthood can diminish, discourage, discount, and even disparage the potential of third thirders to flourish in their personal lives and contribute to the common good. The more those of us in the third third hear and absorb these narratives, the more we will minimize our potential for flourishing. And the more these narrative live in our communities and institutions – like churches, for example – the more this minimization will dominate our lives.
In this article I want to highlight three of what I believe are the most common negative narratives about aging. These narratives are especially prevalent in my cultural setting as an upper-middle-class, white American. I’m aware that other cultures, many that are not present in the United States, do not buy into these narratives in the same way. Perhaps people like me can learn new ways of being from our neighbors.
Negative Narrative #1 – It’s All About You
If you search the internet for websites focusing on the third third of life, especially those talking about retirement, you’ll find numerous examples of the “It’s All About You” narrative. For example, one website reads, “Retire and make this stage of life all about you. After all these years it’s been about taking care of your job, your employer, and your family. No doubt you stressed about how to juggle time and make everything work. Now it’s time to finally put yourself first in retirement.”
In calling this a negative narrative, I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to enjoy life after you retire. I’m not passing judgment on those who play golf or pickleball, binge watch their favorite TV shows, or enjoy new freedom to travel. But if you approach the third third of life with the assumption that it is all about you, then you are choosing a self-centered, self-absorbed life. And since today’s average 65-year-old will live about 20 years, that’s an awful lot of time devoted mainly to your own pleasure. Plenty of research shows that people who live with a self-centered purpose do not do as well as those who live for something beyond themselves. (See, for example, my article “Purpose is Key to Third Third Flourishing”.)
Moreover, if you’re a Christian, it’s impossible to find support for the “All About You” narrative in Scripture. After all, Jesus told his disciples to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). In another place he said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). We are to seek God’s kingdom above all, certainly above our own enjoyment (Matt 6:33). So, for a follower of Jesus, the “All About You” narrative will keep you from living as a faithful and fruitful disciple of Jesus.
Negative Narrative #2 – Dependency and Damage
Another common cultural narrative related to aging I’ve called the “Dependency and Damage” narrative. According to this common story, older adults are mainly and perniciously dependent on younger people, both personally and in the wider society. This widespread dependence, or so goes the narrative, damages the common good, especially in terms of the economy. The present and future damage done by older adults is often called the “Gray Wave” or “Silver Tsunami.” Those of us with gray or silver hair are like a tidal wave poised to wipe out civilization as we know it.
For example, recently the New York Times ran a piece with the title, “This Economy is Not Aging Gracefully.” The author laid out a number of facts that deserve to be taken seriously. But his language reflected and amplified the “Dependency and Damage” narrative. For example, here are a couple of zingers: “The American population is getting older, and that has devastating consequences for the economy.” “Many of our most intractable economic ills can be traced to some degree to this ineluctable fact: America is getting old.” The author isn’t very hopeful about our country’s economic future, though he finds some encouragement in robotics. “One great paradox of this predicament,” he writes, “is that robots could help address some of these problems, replacing workers that age out of their productive lives.”
If that article were just one outlier, I wouldn’t be too concerned. But you can find this sort of narrative all over the place. And when it shows up, it almost always assumed that older adults, though the main part of the problem, are not at all part of the solution. Why not? Because older people have aged out of their productive lives. They can’t contribute to a thriving economy. They can only drag it down. This points to the third negative narrative.
Negative Narrative #3 – Disability vs. Capability
This narrative assumes that older adults are well past their prime, past their time of capability and contribution. This sort of ageism was perhaps best exemplified by Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Back in 2007 at an event hosted by Stanford University, Zuckerberg told the audience: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.” Older adults have limited capabilities and increasing disabilities.
If Zuckerberg had done his homework, he’d at least have been able to say something more nuanced. It’s true, in general, that younger brains are better at certain tasks than older brains. For example, an article from the National Institute of Aging observes, “Some changes in thinking are common as people get older. For example, older adults may:
• Be slower to find words and recall names
• Find they have more problems with multitasking
• Experience mild decreases in the ability to pay attention.
Yet that’s not the whole story. The NIA article continues, “
Aging may also bring positive cognitive changes. For example, many studies have shown that older adults have more extensive vocabularies and greater knowledge of the depth of meaning of words than younger adults. Older adults may also have learned from a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and experiences.
(If you’re interested in recent research about the aging brain, I’d point you to Brain Rules for Aging Well, by John Medina, and The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, by Gene D. Cohen. Both Medina and Cohen are serious scientists, by the way, but they write for a popular audience).
Now, let me be clear, I’m not assuming that older adults do not experience the loss of certain capabilities. Minds do change and bodies do age. I used to hike much faster than my son. Now he has to slow down just so I can keep up. But I can still do 15 miles in the High Sierra and hope to keep this up for many years.
The problem with the “Disability vs. Capability” narrative is that it over-estimates the disabilities of most older adults while minimizing their capabilities. It assumes that “Young people are just smarter” without taking into account ways in which older people are, in general, smarter. I may not have the energy or spunk of a young business leader whom I’m mentoring, but I do have some things to offer him. At least that’s what he tells me.
We Need New Narratives
As I’ve talked with various groups of third thirders about these three negative narratives, they’ve confirmed both the presence and the prevalence of the narratives. They’ve agreed that these narratives can limit the flourishing of older adults. The limitation can come from the outside, as institutions and their leaders express and live into these narratives, exhibiting commonplace ageism. But the limitation can also come as folk in the third third take these narratives to heart and live according to them. We can be our own worst enemies if we live only for ourselves, believe that we dependent purveyors of damage, and assume that our disappearing capabilities are being replaced by dominant disabilities.
We need new narratives for the third third of life, narratives based on what’s real and true, narratives based on serious research and science, and, most of all, narratives based on God’s timeless truth in Scripture. These narratives will not overlook or deny the losses associated with growing older. They won’t pretend that every older adult can be Superman or Wonder Woman. (You do find these sort of narratives out there sometimes.) They will take seriously the whole picture of older adulthood, highlighting its opportunities as well as its challenges.
We’re working on this at the De Pree Center, through our Flourishing in the Third Third of Life initiative. We’re not doing it alone, I should add. We’re grateful for the partners who have joined us, who are supporting our work with their ideas and their generosity, like the folk at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. And we’re grateful to be joining partners who have gone before us in this effort, folks like Marc Belton, Bruce Bruinsma of the Retirement Reformation, Richard and Leona Bergstrom of Re-Ignite, Raymond Jetson of MetroMorphosis, and Eunice Lin Nichols of encore.org. Together, I believe we have the opportunity to begin to chip away at common but negative narratives, replacing them with stories that are truer, hopeful, and transformational.
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, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.