Growing old with purpose

A new book charts the path of purposeful ageing, focusing on who we want to be rather than what.

Older man looking serious


Who do you want to be when you grow old? That’s the title of a new book on ‘purposeful ageing’ which shifts the traditional what question from our youth to who and the need to discover who we really are rather than what work role we want to play. 

The emphasis in the title’s question is on ‘grow’. The authors, Richard J Leider and David A Shapiro, say: “Everyone is getting older; not everyone is growing older.” They speak of growing old as the second phase of growing up and say it can be a liberating experience.

The book is inspired by the fact that we are living longer and that we should do so purposefully, based on our gifts, passions and values. It developed out of a series of conversations between the authors about life and what matters and the chapters have something of that conversational style to them.

They write: “The old half of life gets a bad rap; it’s seen as largely about descent: declining health, financial insecurity, a downward spiral that’s more or less inevitable. In this book, and in our lives and work, we reject that narrative.” And they call for “ a new story, a new language and new models of what it means to be old”.

Changing the mindset

It’s not the word, however, that is the problem, they say, but the mindset. What they outline in the book is a path towards “intentional elderhood” which involves going back to basics – to values and motivations, to what matters to individuals.

The authors talk about the turn to the more spiritual as they grow older, the need for more questions rather than answers, the focus more on experience than material things and on purposeful relationships rather than on pleasing others and on living well. They say there is a lot written about ‘a good death’ and they write about ‘making friends with death’, but ultimately they say “how we lived is far more important than how we die”.

The book ends with an acknowledgement that not one size fits all and that each person has to find their own way towards growing old and becoming more themselves. That means unpacking their past and rethinking their lives. 

They write: “The path for each of us is unique. Society used to guide us down a default path of life, from birth to school, work, retirement, and death. But no more. These days, we must design our own path and take charge of our future, no matter what our age or stage of life. In order to age well, we need to unpack our past, repack for the future, and repeat. We need to make growing old our central life task.”

*Who do you want to be when you grow old: the path of purposeful ageing by Richard J Leider and David A Shapiro, is published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, price £15.99.

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