Taking on the Challenge of Purposeful Aging

How service design could link two of America’s most isolated populations.

Have you ever imagined how you might spend a typical day in your later years? Perhaps it involves sitting in a rocking chair with a giant mug of tea, reading the newspaper while listening to Leonard Cohen. Maybe you’re about to head to a board meeting at your local art museum (to feed your new, post-retirement interest in art curation), then spend the rest of the afternoon tending your huge vegetable garden? That, at least, is my personal version of happy future days.

That bubble suddenly popped earlier this year, when I visited a couple of retirement centers and volunteer organizations, as part of a research effort for a service design project. A team of us from Ziba had the opportunity to interview newly retired people, directors and program managers at volunteer organizations, and volunteers and directors at a community college that offers classes for elders. It was a personally eye-opening and slightly depressing experience, which has kept me awake for many nights since. It’s also led to some insights about retired life, and ultimately to a surprising design solution for those of us who dream of a day like the one I just described.

The reality of being old.

First, an abundance of free time doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. As a generation that never stopped working towards a goal, many Baby Boomers lack the essential life skill of how to enjoy free time. Many retirees today report feeling lost and isolated, lacking a reason to get up in the morning, and in danger of falling into depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans aged 65 years or older. Yes, there is a honeymoon period where retirees go off to travel the world (especially those with means to), or take care of their grandchildren. But there will be even more free time available after doing all of that for a year or two. The popularity of classes and meet-up groups aimed at “finding a life purpose for retirees” is clear evidence. Complete freedom is not complete without a sense of belonging and purpose in life.

Second, let’s say they turn to volunteerism, in search of more flexibility and freedom than going back to work. The world of volunteering turns out to be fiercely competitive. As a “new” old person entering an established system, recent retirees often find themselves in the position of taking over an older volunteer’s job. Older volunteers might be shakier and slower, and the work can be mundane, yet the job the new applicant is attempting to take over is giving purpose to someone else’s life, leading to dirty looks and worse.

Even if the position comes through, the work is often under-stimulating, and always unpaid. Many of those we interviewed ended up in positions that didn’t match their skill set or schedule, were unchallenging, and didn’t provide the social interaction they’d hoped for.

A service platform that connects generations.

As I conducted these interviews, I came to realize these problems closely resembled those I’ve come across in interviews with young freelancers and startup entrepreneurs. Those who decide to leave their full time job and enter a life of self-employment can often feel lost and isolated, especially when suddenly separated from the school or company that once provided structure. They too want to find meaning in life and stay connected with their peers and with society—just like the retirees. This is more than just an analogous group with a similar problem. It’s two groups in exactly the same situation. And they have a lot to offer each other.

Visualize two Post-it notes in your mind. On the blue Post-its, list out the needs of these two groups. They both have a lot of unstructured time that needs to be filled, they both want meaning and purpose, and they want to stay connected. Another blue Post-it records their motivation to give back to the community.

On the yellow Post-its, list assets and resources. Retirees have a lot of experience in their field, and some might even have interests in investment and some extra savings. Among the younger group, especially Millennials, many are broke and have little experience, but bring an abundance of passion and tightly focused technical expertise.

This is a classic service design thinking moment: why don’t we place those two post-it notes next to each other, put a circle it around and call it an “opportunity space”? Help those two generations connect and share their resources, and in the mean time, design a better future for America? A kind of OKCupid for pairing the Encore Generation with Millennial start ups.

In practice, this could take several forms. A volunteer exchange, for example, could give tech-savvy 20-somethings the opportunity to share technology expertise with retirees in exchange for financial advice. Another possibility would be to borrow from Project Breaker, a nonprofit that brings 17-24 year olds together with industry experts, who walk them through a creative problem-solving process, and teach the entrepreneurial skills necessary to transform ideas into businesses. How about a tuition-free 14 day intensive workshop that brings qualified start-up entrepreneurs and retirees of relevant background together?

Taking a lesson from the Sharing Economy.

We live in an age of sharing economies, where power comes from matching apparent needs with often ignored resources. This approach has already been successfully used with cars (Getaround) and housing (Airbnb), but much less so with people. By recognizing the overlapping needs of these two groups, we can empower both to take more active roles in their society, and to continue giving in a way that fits their needs and lifestyle. Just like many other shared economy platforms, the exchange doesn’t have to come from a business.

Let’s start one today. Any volunteers?