Enabling Positive Transitions in Later Life

Jen Morgan is a strategic change consultant and the Executive Director at the Psychosynthesis Trust. She worked with the Transitions in Later Life Learning Community when it met in July 2017.

I’m 45.   I’m ageing.  It’s only recently that I started tuning into my own relationship to ageing.  I am beginning to wonder- “Do I have perceptions of ageing that could hold me back from living a joyful life as I get older?  Who can I look up to as a role model for ageing?  What will it be like to age without children?  How can I appreciate the benefits of ageing such having a greater perspective, wisdom and a broader sense of self?”

I had the opportunity to explore these questions during a recent meeting of the Transitions in Later Life Learning Community, that I co-hosted with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London. Their combined work can be found across England, Scotland and Ireland. Together, this group is seeking to change perceptions of ageing so that we can all lead long and fulfilling lives.  

Changing perceptions, beliefs and values is not easy – and as a result most people don’t dare to go there.  However, I believe it is essential to work at this deeper inner level if we really want to shift how we relate to ourselves, each other and to our planet.   

In my experience of leading systems change, such as through The Finance Innovation Lab and as a strategic change consultant, I have learned that there are some key things to consider when enabling change at scale.    

  1. Understand the Root of the Issue

What I have noticed about effective social movements that are seeking to change perceptions, narratives and norms is that they analyze and understand ‘the problem’ that activates them.    For me this was a hard thing to grasp at first, especially as I am someone who’d rather start with the positive and build on that.   However, I can now see that to look deeply at the problem is ‘to see the whole’.  And seeing the whole enables us to have greater strategic insight, thus take more effective action.  I also feel that there is something about individual and collective problems and shadows that moves us to evolve and grow.

During the workshop the Transitions in Later Life learning community had a first attempt at mapping this very complex and oblique system.    Our intention was to see the causes behind the issue, to understand the complexity of the problem, to bring in different perspectives and to identify places to intervene.

The collective intelligence of the group revealed that some of the causes behind the negative perceptions of ageing include:

  • Our current worldview sees ageing in a negative frame. This is spurred by an individualistic worldview that places a value on ‘survival of the fittest and most virile’.
  • There is a crisis of meaning in society. We value the extrinsic and material (such as possessions) over the intrinsic and non-material (such as relationships).
  • The media idolizes youth. As a result role models for ageing and narratives for the benefits of ageing are hard to develop and amplify. 
  • The decline in status as you age. Our economic assumptions suggest that one is no longer productive after you retire and that older people are seen as a social and economic burden. 
  • The reality of poorer health and the fear of death. This is a fact, however, there is little effort being placed into preventative care and helping people understand their own relationship to death.  
  1. Embrace Complex Systems

So where do you start?   Well, one of the first things to do is to acknowledge and embrace the complexity of the ageing challenge. And to see all of the elements of the challenge relate to each other in some way – they are interconnected – a complex system.  Once you see the parts and how they make up the whole, then you realise that a new approach to change is required. What is needed is an approach that brings agents of change together to see the whole, to learn and experiment with new ideas and to create new collective narratives for change.  Jean Boulton’s recent book Embracing Complexity is a great resource for understanding these new strategic approaches.

  1. Grow a Community of Practice

Working at a level of shifting wordviews is complex, messy and it takes time.  This is why it is important to create a community of practice – a group of people who work together over time around a shared interest. I have observed that successful communities of practice align around a shared vision, purpose, values and beliefs about change.  And critically, they have joint projects where they can grow their relationships, learn together and develop their practice ground.  And importantly, successful communities resource the convening infrastructure that is required to bring people together over time. Etienne Wenger’s book Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning and Identity is a helpful resource for developing communities of practice.

  1. Build a Strategy for Systems Change

Although it is true that you can’t force anyone to change, I do believe you can create the enabling conditions where change is more likely to happen.   And to do this it is important to understand the needs you are meeting, the change you’d love to see in the world and your own beliefs about how change happens.  You can then put an action-learning plan in place in order to act, reflect and adapt your approach over time.  I believe that the change that is required in the world today requires us to take an integrated approach.  That means to work with inner aspects of values and behaviours and the exterior aspects of cultures and structures. And it is important to work with the individual and the collective.  Incorporating all of these aspects in our strategies for change is likely to lead to effective outcomes. Donnella Meadows 12 Places to Intervene in a System is a seminal resource for thinking about change. The Finance Innovation Lab Strategies for Change is a helpful framework.  The School for Systems Change is  for those interested in developing their capacity to lead change programmes.

  1. Develop Personal Leadership

One of the shifts in my own worldview was the realization that we are all interconnected and there is no ‘system out there’.  I am part of the system.  This means that every thought, emotion and action has an affect on others – even though I will most likely never see the impact.  So this leads one to ponder on the question:  How can I develop a greater sense of self-awareness of who I really am? Where are my thoughts and assumptions around ageing that are getting in the way of how I relate to myself, to others and to the world around me? For example, what are my beliefs about ageing that make me feel less valuable? Do I unfairly judge older people and look down on them because I am projecting my own fear of getting older? A great resource for learning more about yourself and who you really are – check out The Essentials Training Programme at The Psychosynthesis Trust.

It feels like The Transitions in Later Life learning community is well placed to work at a level of shifting mindsets and perceptions – and to develop and amplify new inspiring narratives for what is means to age well. I respect their bravery in embracing complexity and valuing the importance of relationships, learning and the convening infrastructure needed to enable change over time. Check out their work!