By Deepak Mahtani
The Empty Nest Syndrome—a problem or an opportunity?
How often have you heard people say: “The kids have flown the nest”; “We now have an empty nest”;’ so “Now I can put my feet up and retire”? While we might have heard these expressions often, and may even have spoken them ourselves, I would like to ask this question: “Are these really biblical and spiritual concepts?” As I have been reflecting on them, I do not believe so. The Lord’s view on life and retirement is far different from the world’s. You never retire in the kingdom of God!
There are people in the world today who are increasingly finding themselves as “empty nesters” due to the baby boom of the 1950s and 60s, often with very little sense of purpose. However, I do not believe we need to resign ourselves to watching life pass us by and just “marking time.” Rather, I believe it is a God-given opportunity that He wants to use in a very special way.
As I attend different conferences and seminars and read articles through the Christian media both here in the UK and abroad, I often hear comments that seem to suggest our generation has made so many mistakes; plus, we are to blame for churches closing down and younger generations leaving the church in increasing numbers and giving up on their faith. Many have resigned themselves and gone into a state of repentance and prayer, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
However, as I meet peers from different walks of life, there seems to be a growing sense that God is raising up a new generation; but this is not the youth generation, as is commonly surmised (though that may be happening as well). It is our generation—those of us now in our 50s and 60s who I believe form this “new generation.”
Our generation of early 50s to late 60s is in a unique position, perhaps like never before. We were born in the 1950-60s. We have had a period of political and economic stability our parents did not enjoy, having experienced and lived through World War II. In fact, considering the state of the economy since 2008, many economists opine that perhaps for the first time in a few decades the generation that succeeds us may not be as prosperous as us, and that seems to have peaked around 2007!
Many of us have grown up in stable homes, enjoyed a good education, and succeeded to whatever extent in our careers. We have a reasonable amount of savings, perhaps own a house, paid off the mortgage, and have had children who are now either in the university or employed, or married with children. Despite the ongoing conflicts and world issues, we have enjoyed decades of a relatively stable and peaceful world, which has fostered our success. What a privileged place to be, and what a privileged generation we are!
The temptation then becomes to “coast” through life, living comfortably, patting ourselves on the back and saying: “We deserve a break; this is what we have worked so hard for.” We continue to work and put aside more money each year, and wait till we go to the grave or the Lord takes us to glory. However, is that what will constitute a life well lived?
Or, we can actively and intentionally decide to do things differently. We can stop primarily seeking financial gain, agree on a standard of living (living the simple life is the topic of many books and websites recently), and become open to God’s opportunities. For example, some have decided to embrace a four-day work week so they can volunteer one day. Others have voluntarily downsized their homes and set up trusts to give to causes close to their hearts. Others have set up charities to fulfill their lifetime dreams. Still others have decided to stop working altogether and live off their investment income as they head overseas as missionaries or tentmakers.
Charles Handy writes in one of his books that we have four purposes in life: to live, to love, to learn and to leave. The question is: “What are you leaving?” In other words: “What is the legacy you are leaving to the world?” This is a fundamental question we all need to face as responsible citizens.
We are in a unique place in history. It has been said: When you are young, you have all the energy, but no money and no time. When you are middle age, you have a lot more money and energy, but no time. When you are much older, you have more money, more time, but no energy.
The majority of us go through these stages of life:
- 20s and 30s—work long, hard hours to make a mark in our professional careers and build our families.
- 40s—try to consolidate career and see children through the college years until they are settled in jobs and families.
- 50s and 60s –enjoy greater freedom in use of time, money and resources.
- 70s and 80s—perhaps slow down due to age and health concerns.
Looking at it in these terms, it seems to me that the 50s and 60s are crucial years in which to make a difference and do things differently. We, the empty nesters or “what nexters,” as I call them, have something that very few have. I refer to these as our distinctives, or in management jargon, our USP (unique selling proposition):
- We have a level of financial security with savings, meaning many of us do not need to work to pay next month’s bills
- We have some experience and wisdom, largely through our own mistakes. Sharing these mistakes with the next generation is invaluable. Igor Stravinsky said: “I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.”
- We have more flexibility with our time than we ever had, since we are not limited by the responsibility of children at home.
- We still have a good level of health and energy, perhaps like never before.
The questions we need to ask are: “What are we doing with these distinctives?” and “In what and whom are we investing?”
God is calling and raising a new generation of what I call McMassMiss—Middle Class, Middle Aged, Self-Supporting Missionaries. Are you one of them? If you feel you have nothing left to offer, remember that God delights in taking the insignificant and making something significant out of it. He takes the natural and turns it into something supernatural. Down through history we can see the pattern, as reflected in this poem (author unknown):
Shamgar had an ox goad; Rahab had a string. Gideon had a trumpet; David had a sling. Samson had a jawbone; Moses had a rod. Dorcas had a needle; all were used for God. The question that God is asking us today is this: “What is in your hand? If you are willing, I can use it to build my Kingdom.”
In his latest (30th) book, Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well, Billy Graham at age 93, writes:
Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life. I would have never guessed what God had in store for me, and I know that as I am nearing home, He will not forsake me the last mile of the way. Explore with me not only the realities of life as we grow older but also the hope and fulfillment and even joy that can be ours once we learn to look at these years from God’s point of view and discover His strength to sustain us every day.
Live your eternal destiny and calling today. Today is the beginning of the rest of your life. The impact we could have on the problems of the world—poverty, climate change, AIDS, broken marriages, families and orphans could just be colossal if we heed this challenge.
Turn your twilight years into “true light” years. They will turn out to be the best years of your life!
Deepak is an award-winning management consultant, international speaker, philanthropist and entrepreneur based in Surrey, England.