In a world where career success and achievement are held as the highest virtues, it's easy to become entrenched in a relentless pursuit of professional accomplishments.
The notion that work can provide everything that religion once did has given rise to a culture of 'workism', where one's self-worth is tied to their career achievements. However, as we venture further into the 21st century, a new life stage is emerging—one that challenges this paradigm and offers valuable lessons about purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.
David Brook's story in The Atlantic 8/25/23 is a testament to the transformative power of embracing change. He tells the story of a seasoned federal prosecutor, who found herself at a crossroads in her 50s after her troubled brother's tragic death.
This pivotal moment led her to Stanford University's Distinguished Careers Institute—a program designed to help adults in their 50s and 60s redefine their purpose after retiring from their main careers.
Kenner's experience in the program encapsulates the essence of this new life stage. As she entered the program, she had to shed her old identity and ego, realizing that her past achievements were no longer relevant. Surrounded by a cohort of peers who had also excelled in various fields, she discovered a new way of learning, vulnerability, and interconnectedness.
Finding Meaning and Purpose Beyond Career
This newfound phase of life is a response to our increased longevity. As people live longer, they are given the opportunity to embrace a new stage between the traditional career phase and senescence. Referred to as the "Third Chapter," "Adulthood II," or the "Encore Years," this stage challenges individuals to answer profound questions about identity, purpose, and significance. The transition isn't easy.
Those who've derived their identity from their careers grapple with the loss of status, the void of work emails, and the shifting roles of friendships. This stage forces them to confront a developmental crisis, where they must choose between generativity—finding ways to serve others—or stagnation.
Finding meaning and purpose beyond career prompts fundamental questions like "Who am I?" and "What's my purpose?" These questions, while acutely relevant to those in the Encore stage, resonate with people at all income levels facing significant life changes.
The emergence of programs like those at Stanford, Harvard, and Notre Dame is encouraging. These programs offer a safe space for individuals to reexamine their lives, think deeply, and connect with like-minded peers. While these programs cater to a privileged audience, the lessons they offer are universal. They underscore the importance of cultivating the 'gift logic' of life, where the focus shifts from self-interest and achievement to contribution and service. The broader culture is in dire need of this values reset.
As we grapple with the damaging effects of workism, we're presented with an opportunity to redefine success and find fulfillment beyond mere career accomplishments. The Encore programs provide hope that, through intentional reflection, embracing vulnerability, and pursuing purpose-driven projects, it's possible to break free from the trappings of a meritocratic society.
So, what can we learn from those entering the Encore stage?
It's not about pursuing a life of leisure or abandoning career ambitions altogether. Instead, it's a call to find intensity and fulfillment by aligning one's actions with their intrinsic desires, contributing to the world, and living a life that serves a greater purpose.
The challenge is to adopt the wisdom of the Encore years and integrate it into our own lives—regardless of age—so that we can all experience the richness that comes from embracing both the utilitarian and moral logic that shape a well-lived life.