The View From Unretirement: After being shut out of jobs in her 50s, Deborah Gale reinvented herself and is helping people of all ages find purpose in life

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A few weeks back, I had a delightful experience appearing on the “Redefining Retirement” episode of “The Big Middle” podcast hosted by British journalist Susan Flory. The best part: listening to Flory’s other guest, Deborah Gale, an Apple corporate treasury manager turned gerontologist researcher who’s now helping retirees find purpose at a U.K. -based social enterprise called The Purpose Xchange. It launched in October 2021, under the umbrella of the provocatively-titled The Age of No Retirement.

As someone trying to find purpose in my unretirement, I wanted to hear more. So, I arranged a video chat with Gale, a U.S. expat in her 60s who now lives near London. I learned that when it comes to purpose in retirement, Gale says, it’s all about three words: identity, intention and action.

Squeezing into Gale’s schedule wasn’t easy. Among the many fascinators that Gale wears: Affiliate Director for U.K. Operations of the Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship and Intergen Leader of Encore Fellows U.K., which helps transition corporate employees into nonprofit work in retirement.

Courtesy of Deborah Gale

If you’re looking for purpose in retirement or will want to find it when the time comes, I think you’ll enjoy hearing from Gale; highlights from our conversation are below. (I’d love to hear how you found, or are seeking, purpose in retirement. Please email me.)

Richard Eisenberg: How did you become so interested in retirement, purpose and aging?

Deborah Gale: I had been responsible for all the domestic cash and foreign exchange operations at Apple
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That is where I met my British husband; he was also in finance at Apple…As soon as the eldest three of our five daughters were ready to go up to university, during the global financial crisis, I thought: ‘That’s it. I’m going back to work.’ I was then in my mid-50s.

So, could I get a job? No. The reality was it was viewed that I was on the wrong side of 50.

And so, I thought: ‘What is the biggest sea change? What is the shift that’s going on right now in the world that we need to be aware of?’ And I was like, ‘I know it’s us, it’s me. I am a highly educated, battle-tested in a corporate marketplace woman who can’t get a job and I can’t be the only one out there. So, then I started researching aging courses and whatnot.

You then got a master’s in aging in public policy at King’s College in London. Did you have any idea what you were going to do with it?

I didn’t. So, I started applying for jobs to be a researcher. And could I get an interview at age 56? No. I was not ‘a known name’…So, I started just writing papers getting published and peer reviewed. I got introduced to a place here in the U.K. called the BioCentre on Ethics and they were doing a lot of work in longevity, with an ethical slant and became a research fellow.

Then, the group Aging 2.0 had just started. They were holding a happy hour in London and they’re calling it Aging 2 Pint O. The guy sitting next to me happened to be a scientist and he was Italian and we exchanged contact details.

Three years later, I get a phone call from him. He said, ‘I have just heard about this Age of No Retirement from one of its co- founders [Dr.] Jonathan Collie, who’s running a big conference with his co-founder George Lee in London. You should call him.’ I did. Jonathan put me on several panels and so then I attached myself to the Age of No Retirement.

What was the Age of No Retirement trying to do?

They really wanted to disrupt the retirement space and to create this new narrative about aging. Their second conference became the boilerplate for what became The Common Room [a space where young and old people could meet and discover or rediscover their purpose and reach new life goals]. We had two open in London until COVID closed them.

To me, the phrase, ‘the age of no retirement’ suggests you’ll never be able to retire. You’ll never be able to stop working; it’s not possible. But I think what it really is about is the age of not the old definition ofretirement, but the new version of retirement. Tell me how you see it.

It really is about what are you going to do with the powerful you? How are you going to change the narrative? How are you going to disentangle yourself from the linear life course?

I saw ‘the age of no retirement’ as a way to tap into this reserve of stuff that you’ve never done before. And now, all of a sudden, you’ve got all this time that you can actually explore it. So, I saw it as a really hopeful, hopeful thing and likewise, a very altruistic thing.

Why do you think the time is right for helping people find purpose in retirement?

You’ve got the biggest chunk of the baby boom, the trailing edge [now age 58 to 66], who are switched on in a different way than the leading edge baby boomers [age 67 to 76] who adopted the whole ‘Let me get to Florida’ mentality.

Why was purpose so important to you and getting the initiatives you’re involved with off the ground?

What we found out in the research with 80 in-depth interviews with people ranging from gang members to retired judges, was the most motivating force held in common by people regardless of their age was purpose.

So, that was where the bones of the Purpose Xchange curriculum were laid. When we opened up in a part of London called Waltham Forest, they had a placard outside the storefront: Come in, discover or rediscover your purpose. We had 500 people sign up in no time flat.

What exactly is the Purpose Xchange?

What emerged from our research is that most people are looking for four things:

They either still need to earn or they want to earn — and that will require either a change of job or a change in career.

They want to learn.

They want to care; they want to give back and volunteer.

Or they’re just really ready to do some creative expression which they’ve never had an opportunity to do before, with perhaps an intention of that creative expression becoming an entrepreneurial pursuit.

We knew that the important part of the Purpose Xchange was building this community of purpose-driven people that are then in a position to be able to not only find purpose for themselves in the next part of their lives, but also realize that they as a group have so much power that is so underutilized.

As I understand it, the way it works is that people sign up for three online Purpose Xchange workshops of an hour and 45 minutes each with people from all over the world. The workshops cost about $75 in total and they are on: ‘What really matters and what’s getting in the way?’ ‘Converting your social and economic worth into purpose goals.’ And ‘You cannot do it all alone. Conversation, connection and change.’

Right. The workshops build on each other. You do a lot of small groups. There’s a lot of exercises, but you explore how you are going to take all of the best things about you and prepare yourself for a purposeful direction? You are also creating a team to bring you forward.

And the teams work on projects connected to one of eight ‘missions’ the Purpose Xchange has selected: global warming, sustainability, poverty, health, well-being and care, prejudice and tensions, education, human rights and freedoms and truth. Then what?

We do monthly online exchanges. All of a sudden, you start to create this group of people that are able to help one another.

What’s next for the Purpose Xchange?

We’re working with Encore.org in the U.K, the Modern Elder Academy and most recently became partners in AARP’s Living, Learning, and Earning Longer initiative. We’ve currently got a pilot under way with a major financial services organization with big companies in the U.K. If we could get some of these companies to have purpose pods in their companies to take one of these missions on, then you could galvanize a lot of people.

That’s the long-term vision for it to become a movement.

Are the people taking the courses evenly split between men and women?

The demographic is very heavily weighted to women because it’s got a lot of appeal for women who have been suppressed in their adult lives and careers and are looking for outlets.

Have you yet seen the effects of the Purpose Xchange?

In the almost eight months since we launched, we’ve got people from 29 countries and almost 450 members. We’ve put 125 people through the three-course curriculum. And if you look at the Voices page on our website, you can see how people’s attitudes are changing. We are lighting something up. I told a friend that I thought we had touched a nerve. She said, ‘No Deb, you have touched a need.’ 

Do people in the U.K. feel they’ll be OK financially whenever they stop working?

It’s a mixed bag. Exactly the same template exists on both sides of the Atlantic. The critical difference is that you have a national healthcare system here. So that papers over a lot of cracks because it doesn’t matter who you are, you are covered for medical.

How do people in the U.K. feel about working in retirement and about entrepreneurship? I think they’re what retirement is becoming for many people like me in the U.S.

I would say that people [in the U.K.] have been very complacent about retirement. And I think that that has made us perhaps less entrepreneurial than in the United States.

I do think that’s changing; entrepreneurship is going to only increase when people realize that their pension pot is not sufficient, particularly in a hyperinflationary climate that we’re living in right now.

Do you want to see a United States version of the Purpose Xchange?

We are already delivering to a global audience — everyone, everywhere is welcome to join the workshops. We would absolutely love more Americans to join us and share in that learning from different countries. Our fastest-growing market after the U.K. is the U.S., so we know that there’s huge potential there. A lot of our people who’ve gone through the program already have gotten up at six o’clock in the morning to participate [due to the time difference between the U.S. and the U.K.].

We are trying to get The Fortune 500, and as many big organizations as we can, to think about this. Because all of them in the post-great resignation period are really reviewing what they do for their employees.

And purpose is something that, you know, will benefit everybody. There is so much benefit from democratizing purpose. So, let’s do this.

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