Finding Purpose In Turbulent Times

Our country can use all hands on deck. 

In his spring graduation speech at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg issued a “generational challenge…not only to create new jobs, but [to] create a renewed sense of purpose.”

After Charlottesville, the DACA debate, and growing divides across the country, as well as natural disasters that call for a unified response, we find that call more timely than ever. In our jobs—working with people at the beginning and end of their careers—we see a swelling number of people seeking purpose. Rather than watching in despair they want to pitch in and be part of the solutions we so urgently need.

It starts early. At Global Citizen Year, a social enterprise working to re-invent the “gap year” between high school and college as a launch pad for global leaders, we’ve witnessed a surge in interest from young people hungry for meaning and eager to give back.

Through a 10-month immersion in another culture, our Fellows gain experience that guides their education, shapes their character, and informs their leadership. And after graduation from college, many go on to purpose-driven careers.

Ananda Day, one of the 35 percent of Global Citizen Year Fellows to receive a fully-funded scholarship, is typical. In high school, she worried about a lack of purpose. “I had this terrible feeling,” she wrote recently, that “I was going to start achieving my dream with no reason why I was going to school other than to gain security later.”

Her gap year, living and working in a small community in Senegal, sparked her interest in public health, development and small business entrepreneurship. “When I got to college,” she writes, “I had a driving factor.”

After graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2014, Day took a job at the Silicon Valley start-up, Carbon 3D, where she hopes to use entrepreneurship and technology to lead a revolution in global heath.

And it’s not just the young who are acting on a desire to serve. At, we lead a movement to mobilize older Americans “as an army of problem-solvers.” Their drive to build a better future for future generations seems to come from an impulse similar to the one we see in millennials, a kind of “moral puberty.” It’s all about purpose.

recent survey showed that, while 4.5 million Americans over 55 years old were engaged in encore work, another 21 million want to do the same.

Another study showed that the desire for purpose in older Americans spanned all economic and educational backgrounds.

These are people such as Larry Jemison in Cleveland, Ohio, a retired letter carrier, who now works 15 hours per week as an AARP Experience Corps literacy tutor for 5- to 8-year-olds. “I get real joy … in seeing the improvement in the kids,” he says.

Or Doug Rauch, who spent 31 years at Trader Joe’s, the last few as president. After retiring, he put his supermarket know-how to work by launching Daily Table in Dorchester, Mass., which makes affordable and healthy food—and jobs—available to people who need them. Building on success, Daily Table will soon expand to another Boston location and then to additional cities.

Day, Jemison, and Rauch were able to find purpose-driven work, but prevailing attitudes and existing institutions block the way for many more.

At the front end of life, high school has become a high-stakes game for many to get into college, often precluding the exploration that uncovers passion and other prerequisites to purpose. At life’s other end, older adults face pervasive ageism and outdated ideas about retirement, as well as a dearth of opportunities to move to purpose-driven work, leaving too many all dressed up with no place to go.

Happily, there are early signs of progress. More colleges are encouraging—and in some cases paying for—students to spend gap years pursuing purpose. And community organizations that match older adults to encore jobs and volunteer opportunities are beginning to spring up across the country.

These bright spots are an encouraging start, though much more is needed to overcome outmoded attitudes and systems. If we can get this right for both young adults and older ones, maybe we can get it right for all those in between as well. Our country can use all hands on deck. 

Abby Falik is Founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year. Ann MacDougall is President of and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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