Friday Book Club | The Arrival of Life’s Third Age: An Interview with Age Wave Guru Ken Dychtwald

August 14, 2020

Friday Book Club | The Arrival of Life’s Third Age: An Interview with Age Wave Guru Ken Dychtwald

May 29, 2023

This week, I discussed aging in the unique and unsettling time of COVID-19 with my good friend, psychologist, gerontologist, Age Wave CEO, and best-selling author of 17 books, Ken Dychtwald, PhD.

Chip: Ken, much of America, including where you live in Northern California, is still under some level of physical distancing. How have you felt about sheltering in place?

Ken: I’ve chosen not to think about this as “sheltering” in place. I prefer to think about what we’re doing right now as “cocooning.” Just as a caterpillar takes time to cocoon in order to reconstitute itself, before reemerging as a butterfly, I believe we’re in the middle of a Covid-19-driven pause, a collective chrysalis. The whole world is going through a near death experience—perhaps the life you were living just died, or you’re worried about someone you love dying or you’re possibly even thinking about your own mortality. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I’m hoping we can all come through this together and find a way to make a better world.

Chip: As you reflect upon 70 years, do you think aging has been an ascent for you—or a descent?

Ken: I’d say that physically I’m trying to keep it from being a descent. My lifelong commitment to healthy living has been paying off and I think I’m doing pretty well. However, I would say that emotionally and mentally, my personal aging has most definitely been an ascent. I like to think that I’ve not just been having birthdays but instead, in Star Trek fashion, I’ve been circling the sun 70 times and it’s been quite a journey. I feel a far greater sense of perspective than when I was younger—and every now and then I notice some buds of wisdom trying to bloom. Lately, I’ve come to realize that although I like the idea of feeling “youthful,” I am more drawn to wanting to be “useful.” All in all, I feel really good about my recent 70th birthday and my own aging.

Chip: Ken, can you tell us a bit about your new book “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age?”

Ken: Over the last decade, my team at Age Wave and I have spent over 70,000 hours doing research to try to figure out a holistic understanding of what the new cohorts of retirees want. The outcome of it is this book, which I’ve written with Bob Morison and in many ways, it is the capstone of all my work to date. I’m also contributing all of my earnings from this book to the non-profit American Society on Aging, which feels good too.

Our intent was to create an all-in-one-place book that was easy to use, made sense of everything from health care to housing, purpose to finance, and could be valuable to people in business, non-profits, and government. We wanted this book to be a helpful guide for the millions of people who aren’t sure how to make the most of this new stage in their lives. Where do they want to live? Who do they want to be? Do they want to go back to school? What is the role of family in this new third age? What are the opportunities for providers—whether they be health providers or housing developers or entrepreneurs or technologists—to meet the needs of this third age of life?

Chip: Can you explain what you mean by “third age” of life?

Ken: Sure. As Bob Morison and I are the guys who, in 2004 wrote the McKinsey Prize-winning article in the Harvard Business Review titled “It’s Time to Retire Retirement,” we believe that the word “retirement” is far too small and narrow for what is now emerging. Its positive connotations – freedom, leisure, etc. – tell only part of the story. Its negative connotations – withdrawal, decline – are increasingly problematic. The words “retirement” and “retiree” aren’t going to be supplanted anytime soon and will most likely linger for another decade or so, but their meanings will evolve as the lifescape of retirement keeps expanding and diversifying.

We believe it’s time to re-identify this “formerly-known-as retirement” lifestage to mean something far bigger and worthy of a new name. From the European tradition of adult education, has emerged the idea that there are three "ages" of man, each with its own special focus, challenge, and opportunity.

In the first age, from birth to approximately 30 years of age, the primary tasks of life center around biological development, learning, and survival. In the second age, from about 30 to 60, the concerns of adult life focus on issues pertaining to the formation of family, parenting, and productive work. The years taken up by the second age are very busy and are filled with social activity; the lessons gathered during the first age are applied to the social and professional responsibilities of the second. Until the last century, most people couldn't expect to live much beyond the second age, and society at that time was thus centered on the concerns of this age.

However, with the rise of longevity and the coming of the Age Wave, a new era of human evolution is unfolding, the third age. With the children grown and many of life's basic adult tasks either well under way or already accomplished, this less pressured, more reflective period allows the further development of the interior life of the intellect, memory, imagination, of emotional maturity, and of one's own personal sense of spiritual identity. The third age has another appealing dimension: there’s plenty of time and opportunity to try new things. Not just be reflective but explore new facets of life. Not just share wisdom but contribute directly to society in new ways. Not just “retire,” but maybe have an encore career, another modified go-round of life’s second age. The third age is now full of potential for individuals, families, and society. This is surely akin to your notion of “modern elders.” The scope of this potential is enormous and unprecedented. And from this perspective, we see elders not as social outcasts, but as a living bridge between yesterday, today, and tomorrow - a critical evolutionary role that no other age group can perform.

Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D. is a gerontologist, psychologist, educator, lecturer, consultant, entrepreneur, and a prolific author. He is also the founder and CEO of Age Wave. To order a copy of “What Retirees Want,” click here: What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age

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