I am a contrarian. At a time when we are wrestling around the world with a pandemic that seems to keep coming back for more, I want to focus on some of the long-term trends that will be shaping our lives in the decades ahead and creating expanding opportunity. Now, more than ever, we should address that opportunity, even though it may seem a bit counter-intuitive.
One long-term trend that we should not ignore is that, even with pandemics, the average life span of people around the world is likely to continue to extend significantly. This presents both challenges and opportunities.
The Boomer opportunity
For many people, a longer life comes as a surprise. To the extent they have saved money along the way, they may find that they have not saved enough – they didn’t expect to live that long. At the same time, many are now seeing that there’s an opportunity to define a whole new chapter in their life – a chapter where they can aspire to having an impact that is much more meaningful to them and to others.
There’s a significant shift within the Boomer generation in the United States. In the past, the assumption was that someone would retire and then go out and golf or play bridge for a few years until the Grim Reaper would come and take them away.
Now, fewer and fewer Boomers are willing to embrace that path. They’re viewing retirement as an opportunity to step back and reflect on what really matters to them and find ways to make a difference that matters. In this context, I highly recommend the book “Disrupt Aging” by Jo Ann Jenkins, the CEO of the AARP.
For many, they are continuing to work and earn money, but they are shifting to work that excites them and motivates them to have an impact. Often, they are taking a hobby that really has excited them throughout their life like wood-working or gardening and finding a way to make a living from it. In other cases, they are dedicating more time to community initiatives that are meaningful to them.
Some fortunate Boomers already know what really excites them, but my research indicates that is a very small number. The challenge is that this generation grew up in a world where the key message was to go find a job that could earn a decent living. It was all about income and status in the community. The message was, if you have a passion or are really excited about something, pursue that in your leisure time, but don’t let it distract you from doing what’s necessary to advance in your chosen career. And, if you don’t have a passion, that’s fine – very few people are capable of passion and it’s often a distraction from making a good living.
So, many Boomers are now facing the challenge and opportunity of finding out what really excites them. How do they do that? Well, that’s a key focus of my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear. It won’t be published until May, but I can give you some hints regarding approaches that have been helpful for me and others whom I’ve worked with.
The role of personal narrative
One approach is to make an effort to articulate and reflect on the personal narrative that is shaping your choices and actions today. As I’ve written about here, here, and here, I have a very different view of narrative than most. In this context, it involves looking ahead and determining whether your view of the future is shaped by threat or opportunity. If it’s an opportunity that really inspires and excites you, what is that opportunity and why do you find it so exciting?
Many people find that articulating their personal narrative is an eye-opener. More and more of us are driven by a view of a significant threat out in the future – e.g., loss of income, erosion of cultural values, or illness. We’re driven by fear.
Articulating our personal narrative can become a catalyst to begin the search for opportunities that really excite and inspire us.
This search can lead to discovering for the first time the passion of the explorer that lies within all of us, waiting to be found and drawn out. Again, I have a very specific view of passion that I’ve written about here and here. I’ve come to believe that the passion of the explorer is key to motivate us to have increasing impact in an area that is truly meaningful to us. And I’ve also come to believe that we’ll have much more impact if we can find ways to integrate our passion with the work that helps us to earn a living.
OK, I can hear the skeptics among us saying that this is all a hopeless fantasy. Even if we could discover our passion, we could never make a living from it. Well, but that’s what’s so interesting about the Boomers. Many of them (but certainly not all) have accumulated savings and have the ability to pursue something that, at least in its early stages, may not generate significant revenue.
Fragmentation expands opportunity
But this is where another long-term trend comes into play that I believe will help more and more Boomers to find and pursue something that is really meaningful to them and to others. Many years ago, I led a research effort looking at fragmentation and concentration trends in the global economy – the primary research report can be accessed here.
Long story short, we found that a significant part of the economy is fragmenting over time. What’s fragmenting are product and service businesses. It started in digital product businesses like videos, music and software, but this fragmentation trend is increasingly spreading into physical product businesses like craft beer and craft chocolate.
There are many forces at work driving this trend. It starts with the increasing desire of customers for products and services that are tailored to their specific needs and that will evolve quickly as their needs evolve. Customers are less and less willing to settle for highly standardized, mass market products.
On the supply side, the fragmentation of these businesses is supported by the increasing availability of scale intensive resources that significantly reduce the cost of entering and building a business. Think about it. If it’s a physical product, we can find a contract manufacturer to produce the product. We can rely on massive logistics networks to get the product from the factory to the customer. We can use online market platforms to find and connect with relevant customers, wherever they are in the world.
We actually need less and less investment to get started in these product and service businesses. Now, because of fragmentation, these businesses are unlikely to become massive, global corporations, but they can certainly provide a comfortable living for a small number of people who come together to build and operate the business.
And this is what more and more Boomers are discovering. As they evolve a personal narrative that is focused on an opportunity that is exciting and meaningful to them and to others, they can begin to build a business to address that opportunity and draw out the passion of the explorer. Now, that expanding life span becomes energizing, rather than intimidating – it’s an opportunity to find a way to make a difference that’s rewarding for everyone involved. It helps to motivate Boomers to invest the time and effort to articulate and evolve a personal narrative and, in the process, to discover that long hidden passion of the explorer.
And, yes, we need to acknowledge that the pandemic period can be very challenging for starting a new business, especially if it involves personal contact with customers, given widespread restrictions on business activity. Nevertheless, this is the window that Boomers can use to gain clarity around the opportunity that excites them and begin to prepare for the launch of a business when the restrictions ease.
Also, I have been talking about the opportunity in terms of a business, but the opportunity could take many different forms, including charities, local community initiatives to strengthen the community or much broader movements to drive significant change. While I haven’t done specific research on these other approaches to impact (except for movements), I believe that many of the forces that are making it easier to start new product and service businesses will also make it easier to launch other, non-commercial initiatives.
A growing number of people, including Chip Conley, with his Modern Elder Academy, and Marc Freedman, with his Encore.org initiative, are recognizing the growing desire of Boomers to find ways to have meaningful impact and mobilizing to support them on their journey.
Beyond the Boomers – an opportunity for everyone
So far, I’ve been talking about this in terms of Boomers and the opportunity created by longer life spans. But, if we focus on the other trend of fragmentation of product and service businesses, we can begin to see how this applies to all of us, regardless of our current age. Wherever we are in our life’s journey, we now have more and more opportunity to pursue work that’s exciting and meaningful, and not just a source of income.
But the key is to make the effort to reflect on what is most exciting and meaningful to us. There’s now a significant incentive to do this.
And crises like the pandemic can also become a catalyst. I’m struck by the number of people I’ve talked to who have told me that the pandemic has caused them to step back and take the time to reflect on what really matters to them. Many of them have been quite disappointed to discover that most of their time is being spent on things that do not matter to them, often because they were driven by a sense of fear that pre-dated the pandemic. But now they’re on a quest to change that.
The pandemic is just one manifestation of the much broader trend towards mounting performance pressure in our global economy. Fear is a natural human reaction to a world of mounting performance pressure. But here’s the thing. We’ll be much better able to respond to the growing pressure if we can find something that excites and motivates us, rather than just pushing forward on a path that has little meaning.
And the paradox is that the same forces that are generating mounting performance pressure are also creating expanding opportunity. But we need to find ways to discover and focus on the opportunities that are most meaningful to us if we are going to overcome the pressure.
This applies to all of us, including those who are marginalized in our communities and struggling to stay alive, much less earn a decent living. We need to mobilize to create environments that will help all of us to find the motivation and resources to achieve impact that matters.
Long-term forces are making it more and more important for us to step back and reflect on our personal narrative so that we can focus more effectively on emerging opportunities that can help us achieve more meaningful impact. By framing these opportunities, we can draw out the passion of the explorer that will help us to address growing pressure and connect with others on the rewarding journey that awaits us. The pandemic is a significant near-term obstacle to be overcome, but it can become a catalyst for action if we stay focused on the opportunities ahead.
<For those who are interested in learning more about how to articulate, reflect on, and evolve your personal narrative to achieve more meaningful impact, check out some of the online courses that I offer here.>