(My dad this summer in Woodstock, NY)
I recently read an excellent essay by Andrew Kortina titled, “They Say the #1 Killer of Old People is Retirement.” In this piece, he discusses the importance of finding purpose and meaning deep into life. Andrew outlines a confluence of factors that are causing mental and financial hardships for baby boomers. Many are struggling emotionally and financially for a variety of reasons including lack of savings, meaningful work and intellectual stimulation. He proposed several interesting solutions based on this simple idea: “I think we can help people continue to feel productive and valued by instilling them with some sense of greater purpose after retirement.” Kortina’s post conjured thoughts and feelings about my father who recently turned seventy-five.
Several years ago, dad was in a tough spot mentally. He had aged out of the workforce and just experienced his second divorce. Additionally, he was living alone for the first time in nearly thirty years. While he had some savings and a predictable income stream from Social Security and an annuity he purchased, this cushion likely wouldn’t be enough if god-forbid there was an emergency or if he is lucky to live beyond his mid-eighties. During this period, my dad would run errands, go to the gym, watch sports and hang around the house on most days. That was his routine. My siblings and I could tell he was depressed, lonely, hopeless and stuck in a vicious cycle.
My dad’s situation isn’t unique. There are more than 70.4 million baby boomers in America according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Workforce participation among boomers is on the decline. Nearly half of boomers haven’t saved for retirement and sixty percent are relying heavily upon Social Security to be their safety net (link). Furthermore, one in seven boomers is treated for depression, which is a higher rate among other generations of American adults (link). Finally, divorce among Boomers is increasing. The number of divorces among that age demo has doubled since the 1990s (link). When looking at the various data points, it turns out that my father isn’t an outlier.
One day last year, I was having a heart-to-heart with my father. We were trying to brainstorm hobbies, odd jobs, volunteer opportunities and local organizations where he could spend his time and perhaps earn a few bucks. I suggested joining the local senior center. That idea didn’t resonate because he still felt young and couldn’t identify with being a senior. We talked about him becoming an usher at Fenway Park since he loves the Red Sox. That likely couldn’t work given the night games and the forty-five minute commute to and from Boston. He suggested working at a friend’s restaurant as a host but they’re only open for dinner. My brothers and sisters also got involved and suggested a bunch of ideas but none seemed to stick.
I felt like we were at a dead end until one afternoon when I was talking with my father about his situation. For some reason in that moment, Viktor Frankl and his seminal book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ suddenly came to mind. The book chronicles Frankl’s experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, and describes his psychotherapeutic method, Logotherapy, which is founded on the belief that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose. Fulfillment achieved through pursuit of meaning in one’s life. Frankl famously wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” In that moment, I said to my dad, “You need to find something that will give you purpose and meaning in life.”
Several weeks later, I got a call from him and he sounded upbeat. He proudly announced that he was going to apply to be a substitute teacher in the local area. While my dad was a sales executive for most of his career, he has always had a passion for teaching, coaching and helping youth. I could tell he was excited about this potential opportunity and this could be the solution he and my family had been looking for. He approached the application and interview process as if he was going for a full-time job with a Fortune 500 company. He prepared for hours, gathered strong references and followed up after each of his interviews. He left no stone unturned. It wasn’t very long until he had a job as a substitute teacher in multiple school systems.
Today, my father is a full-time substitute teacher at Salem High School. He loves going to school every day and interacting with the students and the faculty. They challenge him (in a positive way) and help him remain young at heart. No job at the school is above him. He’d mop the floor if they asked him to. He’s contributing in his own way. He’s healthier physically and sharper mentally. He believes he’s making a difference. At age seventy-five, he has managed to find his calling in life. Isn’t that amazing? Most importantly, my dad has finally found meaning and purpose in life. I honestly haven’t seen him this happy and fulfilled in the last twenty years. Every few weeks, my dad will thank me for encouraging him to seek meaning and purpose. The nudge, while simple, was all he needed.
So why did I tell my dad’s story? I feel it’s our generation’s responsibility to help our parents and elders find meaning and purpose should they need a compass. They paved the way for us and now we’re standing on their shoulders. There’s so much we can learn from them. There’s a good chance that we’ll want the same support and guidance from future generations. Helping boomers find a new north star might be one of the biggest untapped opportunities that not enough smart people are focused on. Sure, there might be economic upside in cracking this nut, but I feel there are far larger benefits: less-depression, more quality time with loved ones, better relationships, more independence, healthier bodies and minds, and hopefully longer lives. That seems like a no-brainer to me.