Redefinition vs. Meaninglessness: Seniors Revisiting Purpose

Joey Drucker


This article examines the necessity for senior citizens to redefine their purpose using the framework presented by Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Around the time of retirement or when age related declination creates physical, mental, or emotional limitations, seniors must grapple with a new choice where they can either recreate a sense of purpose for themselves or face different forms of unhappiness, unrest, depression, vulnerability, or meaninglessness. In relation to work with clients, purpose is defined subjectively as what gives people meaning in their lives. Several narratives are included to illustrate the effects of having a sense of purpose as well as being without purpose.


Retirement comes for some people as a choice, for others without their consent, and for some, work only stops at death.

In any scenario, a transition exists in this country around the age of 65, one which offers choices that have both positive and negative outcomes for the individual. By finding or creating a new sense of purpose, older adults who retire can lead happy, vital and satisfying lives. Without a sense of worth or meaning, people tend to struggle with mental, emotional, and physical health concerns.

For the newly retired person, favorable and adverse situations exist in relatively sharp contrast to each other. Therefore, it seems that there is a prominent challenge or crisis present at this time that needs investigation. In terms of Erikson’s stages of development, a new stage can be introduced between the 7th and 8th stages. The 7th stage, Generativity versus Stagnation, typically refers to the mid-life crisis. The 8th stage centers on the dilemma of Ego Integrity versus Despair and primarily exists within the last year or two before death. At that time in a person’s life, she or he must slow down so much that they no longer feel fulfilled from their present activities and instead turn to integrating the past. According to Yount, “The years of senior adulthood, beginning at retirement, form the final stage in Erikson¡¯s original theory. During this stage, adults reflect on their lives and accomplishments as they move toward death” (Yount, 2009, p. 79). This stage was time appropriate since Erikson developed his theory when the average life span for men was 66 years old (US Census, 2008). Since the average life span is now 10 years greater than it was in the 1950s, a new stage is needed after a person transitions from work and before they are dealing with the end of their lives (US Census, 2008).

When looking at retirement in Erikson¡¯s terms, the question of “do I still contribute to society as a whole?” slowly morphs into the question of “have I contributed enough to society?” This challenge fits very nicely into Erikson’s stages of development crises, but what is missing is the stage that incorporates the metamorphosis itself. Between the 7th stage of the middle adult years and the 8th stage identified as senior adulthood (Yount, 2009, p. 79), there exists an entire new stage of life for those adults who retire from their work. When a person is able to continue to contribute to society or at least interact with others after their retirement, they seem to be facing the challenge of Redefinition versus Meaninglessness. In this proposed stage, redefinition has to do with creating a new sense of purpose, and meaninglessness has to do with the confusion and disparity that exists for a retiree who does not find a new sense of purpose. Since many people possess energy, vitality, and untested creativity at the time of their retirement, they continue to shoulder a conscious or unconscious need to matter to others. Their life is not over, and it is not enough for them to simply know that their life used to be worthwhile. It is paramount to their health that their life feels meaningful in this later stage. In cases where people do not feel like they have a sense of purpose, many express the fear that retirement will lead to an untimely death (Nuttman-Shwartz, 2004).

Before diving deeper into the positive or negative resolutions to this proposed stage in Erikson’s theory, purpose must be clearly defined as it applies to retirement:

Purpose is having specific goals that we have decided are important and that we want to achieve. Our goals determine how we spend our time and resources. Not only does purpose give life direction and meaning, it is the driving force that propels us toward our goals. Purpose energizes. Purpose motivates. Purpose focuses. Purpose structures and fills a person’s day. Purpose is about having a vision in life. This vision is a picture of something important and significant that we see in our mind’s eye, a picture of something we have not yet achieved but have decided is worth the effort to obtain. (Koenig, 2002, 7-8)

With the individual word “purpose” defined, a follow up question must be asked about purpose in a person’s life. “… among the great civilizations in human history, [the United States of America] is the first to have no generally agreed upon answer to the question: ‘What is the purpose of life?'” (Koenig, 2002, 172). Considering the magnitude of that statement, it is crucial to have ideas about how a person or a group of people can create and pursue a unique purpose.

In this culture, purpose is a very individual and subjective matter. The way that people connect to purpose in their lives is essential; the makeup of that purpose is less important than the passion of the connection. Purpose can be understood by the way it makes an individual feel, by providing the retiree a reason to continue growing, and by making a person feel needed. One conclusion that is drawn from the MacArthur study is that “successful aging is determined less by genetic inheritance than by active commitment and passionate engagement” (Weiss & Kaplan, 2000, p. 448). If a person possesses a solid sense of purpose, then the actions related to it will be completed with the commitment and passion that the MacArthur study suggests. Furthermore, with acknowledgment from the mental health community about the importance of purpose and increased discovery of tools to pursue it, many older adults may resolve this challenge before it becomes a crisis.

Some examples of purpose include Yount’s (2009) description of Erikson’s 7th stage where older adults guide the younger generation of adults and pass on their wisdom and values. Helping others through work or taking care of family are some common examples of purpose. Several other examples relate to creativity and production. A sense of purpose must be realistic for someone’s abilities. After retirement, purpose is still needed, but because of changes due to aging, a person must redefine it or suffer without one. A person might still want to help the younger generation or to continue with family caregiving, but their capacities to accomplish activities must be evaluated and redefined to fit potential limitations as well as new freedoms. Some external factors that affect an aging person compared to a middle aged adult might include physical, social, or financial restrictions, and some new flexibilities might include time, financial stability , and untapped creativity. The choices that lead to the redefinition can be conscious or unconscious, as long as they are feasible and come from a person’s desires.

Many examples exist of people expressing happiness in relation to a new-found purpose after retirement. In a longitudinal study of 56 Jewish men living in Israel and retiring from 14 different workplaces, a positive correlation can be extrapolated from the subjects’ senses of purpose after retirement and their well-being. One man from the study who expressed a desire to work outdoors and a feeling of being trapped indoors at his job said that retirement would be a time “more for spirit and less for matter” (Nuttman-Shwartz, 2004, p. 232). He went on to further say:

I’ll go out to the fields every day as much as my legs will carry me because there I’m connected with the vegetation, with the moving clouds; that’s where I feel my place on earth is.

Having retired from his job, this man possessed the opportunity to do the work that he had always wanted to do; his work felt so good that simply doing it was his purpose. The outcomes from the work such as money or crops were irrelevant to him since all he wanted was to be present in his work in the fields. This man was a part of the group from the study that anticipated new and exciting choices after retirement. They expected better days to come instead of harboring a view that the best days were in the past. Comments from participants like “I’ll finally realize my dream,” and “The future holds all my wishes and desires,” were quite common (Nuttman-Shwartz, 2004, p. 232).

A person’s work environment often provides socialization as well as focus on an outcome or activity. With retirement, that
purpose disappears, and therefore it is natural that fear of isolation exists and may persist. If a person plans for or at least has awareness of the choices surrounding their current transition, that person can reestablish a sense of purpose. In a letter from a retiree from Brooklyn College, a professor alluded to his lack of a plan after retirement with a sense of fear. “A sudden absence of responsibility can really create havoc with one’s mood and disposition” (Roach, 1981, XII). Brooklyn College allowed this professor to retain his small biology laboratory. For him, the chance to work on the campus two days a week helped make the transition less traumatic. Years later, he created an opportunity to teach a science course to his retired peers. The fact that this teaching engagement offered no pay and no professional advancement was meaningless. The meaning for this professor was found in the act of teaching. “I am happiest when I work, and retirement came a bit too soon despite my 70+ years of age” (Roach, 1981, XII). The term ¡°work¡± was redefined by the professor. To him, feeling needed and passing on knowledge was work even though nothing tangible was reciprocated. The professor found purpose again, and as he had the strength, ability, and desire to continue to teach, he seems to have found the perfect retirement activity. In clinical practice, examples of successful retirement can be used to encourage people to plan for their lives after work with the focus being a sense of purpose rather than only looking at financial planning or physical changes.

Next, the outcome of meaninglessness will be investigated. While examining other letters from Brooklyn College retiree’s, one professor said, “We were unprepared for the sudden shock of unplanted emptiness” (Roach, 1981, XV). An administrator from the same school pleaded with others, “Planning to retire? Unless your decision is motivated by age or infirmity, don’t! The contemplated leisure free from pressure to engage more fully in your hobbies is an illusion. For an alert, dynamic professional there is no substitute for the stimulating contact with students and one’s colleagues” (Roach, 1981, XVI). Since those professionals did not consider finding a new purpose, they could think of no other option but to avoid retirement. Sigmund Freud offered the most extreme example of resistance to retirement. After illness decayed his body so badly that his clients complained of the smell, Freud finally stopped practicing. Shortly thereafter, he ended his life with the help of his physician (Weiss & Kaplan, 2000). After 53 years of work, Freud did not even attempt to discover a new purpose for his life.

For a retiree, purpose and renewing one¡¯s self-identity need to be complemented with feeling important, respected, and needed (Pushkar & Bye, 2010). When looking at the difficulties of retiring, Avery Weisman shares about his personal challenges:

I cannot wholly separate myself from the dictum that work and worth go to- gether and that worthwhile work implies a
contribution of some sort or at least to be somewhat productive in old age…Consequently, after retirement when work is
taken away, the old per- son, including me, needs to look for a sense of purpose. Without it, self-regard is shaky, and it is
difficult to feel effective when there is nothing to be effective about… Retirement should mean more than retrenchment and recreation. (as cited in Weiss & Kaplan, 2000, p. 449)

Rather than stagnating in unwanted leisure, Weisman was able to re-create a purpose for himself by writing. Since he did not need to work, Weisman was able to connect to a new type of creativity that had more to do with personal satisfaction than production.

Continuing from the study of the retired Israeli men, several people worried about being bored, lonely, vulnerable, and powerless. Over a year after retirement, one participant shared that his worries were far worse than the reality of life after work since he recreated and implemented purpose back into his life:

The devil isn’t so bad after all… I’m ashamed of what I told you last year… I don’t believe that I could have thought that
retiring was all that awful… Today I’m busy up to my ears in political activity and I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier. (Nuttman-Shwartz, 2004, p. 234)

Even though this man initially wavered in the conflict between Redefinition versus Meaninglessness, by being patient and open-minded, he found a new sense of purpose. He expressed disbelief and a lack of understanding about his own previous feelings. With a new stage in Erikson’s theory, it is possible to help retirees navigate this transition more intentionally and effectively, which will increase their happiness and lessen their stress.

Turning to self-psychology for another perspective on purpose, Kohut explains unhappiness as a lack of meaning in a person’s life. “Kohut’s man in trouble was not riddled with guilt over forbidden wishes; he was moving through a life without meaning. Devoid of that zest for life that infuses the mundane with interest, he looked and acted like a human being but experienced life as drudgery, accomplishments as empty” (Mitchell & Black, 1995, p. 149). This dilemma can be applied to the transition of
retirement when many people lose the meaning that their work provided and thus suffer in emptiness:

[The elderly] are removed from functioning as full participants in the professional and business world. They may no
longer be able to function independently. These changes produce a change in the self of the elderly. The elderly person
may adapt and maintain a cohesive self, or the elderly person may not be able to adapt and suffer self-fragmentation.
(Swensen, 1993, p. 180)

Ending work along with other age related changes cause a need to create new ways of participating in the world. Without such meaning in a person’s life, Swensen suggests that a retiree’s sense of self will become fragmented and will not be able to adjust.

By drawing from Kohut’s perspective into Erikson’s model, the cohesive self is maintained through positive resolutions of the current crisis. The fragmented self occurs due to the negative resolutions of a crisis or crises. “Erikson and Kohut are not often linked, but their contributions grew out of a common source in Freudian ego psychology… Taken together, they… opened up the problem of personal subjectivity and meaning for contemporary psychoanalytic exploration” (Mitchell & Black, 1995, p. 141). By allowing for subjectivity as well as an exploration of meaning in the cultural terms of the client, a clinician attempts to help an individual cultivate a whole sense of self. When working with a retiree, the clinician must be prepared to support the investigation and formulation of a sense of purpose. This work will help the client improve their feelings of worth and meaningfulness in the present and allow for deeper explorations of the self when necessary.

In response to the argument that this new stage of Redefinition versus Meaninglessness completely ignores the fact that many people cannot afford to retire, there are several items to consider. First, most people in this culture at least know about retirement. Some understand it in relation to their acquaintances, others start with getting social security checks, and some elders’ bodies and abilities change as they enter a new stage. As there seems to be a universal awareness of this life transition, people at this stage need to reassess their purpose even if they are not retiring. Since purpose is extremely subjective, a person can potentially feel good about anything. If a person in poverty feels needed and rewarded by continuing to work hard and provide for their family, that person could feel even better knowing that they are overcoming the additional obstacles of old age. While it may be idealistic, this statement is trying to illustrate that one’s personal feelings and self-evaluation are important to develop a healthy sense of purpose. Erikson’s theory in general is very individualistic and therefore is not a useful tool in addressing systemic oppression.

The reason for adding to Erikson’s already very useful theory is to help people with the challenge that arises around retirement. When working with older adults before, during or after retirement, an important question to ask is “What do you want to do now?” with “want” being the key word. The question, “What are you going to do now?” is not as helpful. Desire and intention will lead to purpose. Planning and reevaluation of one’s future purpose leads to happiness, excitement, and a sense of well-being.

When working with the aging, many different modalities in mental health services use symptoms to guide their treatment. That approach often leads to the belief that a person is completely healthy if they are free of a mental illness or diagnosis (Hartman-Stein & Potkanowicz, 2003). Rather than looking at what is not present, it is more helpful and strengths-based to focus on skills, behaviors, and attitudes that are present. It is also useful to look at universal developmental stages and assess a person in relation to their progress at each stage and the person’s outcomes. “The key to a vibrant, satisfying, and meaningful retirement is to find new purpose – a goal toward which to strive that gives meaning, satisfaction, and a sense of reward” (Koenig, 2002, p. 172). When a person redefines their purpose in life to incorporate their desires and realistic abilities, they pave the way for a happy retirement.


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About the Author

Joey Drucker is a 2011 graduate of Hunter College School of Social Work. He focused on both group work and individual clinical work in his internships at Henry Street Settlement and Mapleton Midwood Geriatric Services. Throughout his fieldwork, he counseled disconnected young adults, at-risk children, staff in an after-school setting, and frail elders in their homes and at community agencies. He can be reached at

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