August 28, 2020
by Tina Arnoldi
A recent study found that altruism increased with age, going from less than 25% through age 35 to around 75% among people 55 and older. It is possible that realizing there are fewer years to live encourages people to consider the greater good more than they did as a youth. Whether people do good deeds because of their selfless nature or out of ulterior motives is unclear but we do see an increase in generosity with age.
Allie Adamis, co-founder of the Agus and Allie blog, points to Erik Erikson's framework to explain this finding. Erikson said there are salient tasks associated with each stage of life. She explains, “In adulthood, the salient task is generativity, or the desire to create, guide, and mentor younger generations. As individuals age and pass the midpoint of their lifespan, they come to grips with the fact that their time left is limited, and feel motivated to leave a lasting mark.”
Adamis notes the desire to be generative is motivated by cultural expectations for different life phases, such as the expectation to parent, and an inner desire to make a difference in the world that will outlast oneself. “This motivation transforms into goals then actions,” said Adamis, “explaining the uptick in generosity we see with age. Whether the drive to generativity is selfless or selfish is up to debate. What we do know is that it is developmentally normative, and indicative of healthy aging.”
Psychotherapist Dr. Gary Brown believes the level of generosity that people express is based on years lived and the degree of gratitude people feel for life. “If we experience gratitude in our lives, we are more likely to feel empathy for those who are not as happy as we are,” said Brown. He noticed that the more grateful people are, the more they want to express their gratitude with generous words and actions.
Brown also points to the need for leaving a legacy. He explains: “Most people I know are naturally generous. This increases with age as we become more aware of our mortality and the limited time we have to make a positive impact in the world."
Albert Lee, Founder of Home Living Lab, also believes people feel a strong need to leave a legacy as they grow older. “People wonder what they will be known for when they pass on and whether they will be remembered,” said Lee. “Perhaps that drives us to become more altruistic as we age. We pass on our knowledge selflessly so that our experience lives on in our children and students. We donate to charity so that we will be remembered as a giving and generous person. Ultimately, we want to leave a good memory for those we leave behind after we pass on.”
The increase in generosity may also stem from practical considerations; older people tend to have more resources and financial stability than their younger counterparts. Erik Rivera, CEO of ThriveTalk, notes that “young adults struggling to climb their career hierarchy have eyes on the prize of increasing their wealth. However, when people reach a certain age, that desire slowly dies out as people realize that such ambitions are not healthy sources of happiness.” Reiki practitioner Fernanda Sarmento adds, “Age is just a catalyst for the shifts in consciousness as it has allowed life experiences to help people reach conclusions on what is worthy or not. You get confident about what this life is really about. Younger people have less experiences so their ‘unknown’ space is big and allows the mind to wonder instead of knowing.”
How we answer this question has also changed in the last year. Brown notes, “In a COVID world, those who are older may feel even more grateful to still be alive. That can increase our sense of naturally wanting to share with others in whatever ways we seek to be generous.”