External Author:

Philip A. Pizzo, MD  PPizzo

Needed: A new narrative for higher education that could improve the life journey


Philip A. Pizzo, MD  PPizzo

June 25, 2014

We generally take it for granted that higher education plays an important role in shaping the personal and professional life path of individuals in their second and third decades of life. We accept that many young people will leave the structure and security of home and family to join a new community, sometimes at a great distance, where they will be intellectually, emotionally and physically challenged, transformed and transitioned to the first phase of adult life. We expect young adults to try on new identities, explore new options, develop new social networks, and acquire the critical knowledge and skills they need to prepare for the future. While some will begin this journey with defined goals and ambitions, many start out along one path and then change direction, sometimes dramatically, over the subsequent years. Until now, the preparations that began in college or in professional and graduate school established a roadmap that lasted for decades. Indeed many expected that a career path, once launched, would be defining and long lasting, perhaps even to “retirement.” But the life journey is changing in significant ways, and it is important to reconsider its tempo and recalibration – and the role that higher education can play in that process.

For most people, even a satisfying job or position doesn’t last forever and, over time, transitions are anticipated or sought, or they may become inevitable. Often a career cycle will run for 20-30 years. While a previous era brought the career path within striking distance of retirement, the rapid changes in longevity are altering that expectation – and appropriately so. Retirement is, in many ways, a 20th century concept – and not one that likely promotes personal health or contribution to community and society. A life journey provides insights and wisdom that can be of enormous benefit to individuals, including in ways that are intergenerational. The problem, however, is that the path beyond a traditional career is often uncharted, and there are many cultural and societal perceptions that make navigation lonely or fraught with difficulties. We must be more creative and change the narrative of expectations and opportunities. Here higher education can play an important new role.

An ideal would be if we could also take for granted that higher education played a role in shaping the personal and professional life path for individuals in midlife. This would provide a socially and culturally acceptable way for individuals with the wisdom of decades behind them to pause, reflect, reconnect, reinvent and redirect their lives in ways that could be meaningful to themselves and their communities, locally and globally. The opportunity to begin a new journey that offers personal development oriented toward purposeful living and that forges a new community of peers and colleagues could be rejuvenating, exciting and important. Universities can be the home for this re-anchoring using a combination of on-campus and on-line learning tools, technology and networking possibilities.

The good news is that a changing narrative for higher education is already underway. In 2009 Harvard launched its Advanced Leadership Initiative (, and this program already offers seminal insights and observations. In January 2015 Stanford will begin its Distinguished Careers Institute ( for established leaders from all walks of life who seek to transform themselves for roles with social impact at the local, national, and global levels. ( is playing a catalytic role in fostering and creating second (or beyond) career paths, including through its Encore Colleges program ( And universities around the nation are beginning to reach out to alumni and others about new opportunities for reengagement along the life journey. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a paradigm shift for midlife and beyond.

I’m hoping to do all I can to foster a national and global dialogue in higher education that results in new programs and opportunities for individuals in midlife and that creates new paths for meaningful living along with a renewed focus on health and well-being. We take it for granted that by 2030-2040 approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 or older. This is part of a global transformation in longevity. The world as we have known it is changing – and will keep changing as people live much longer lives. Making lives as meaningful as possible is enormously relevant to individuals and society. Indeed, it may be possible to reduce many of the related health complications that arise during the life journey if we foster programs in intellectual, emotional and health renewal. Higher education, including universities, colleges and community colleges across the nation, can develop unique programs that meet the needs of local communities and that offer a scaffold for life transformation, transition and well-being.



Philip Pizzo is the founding director of the Distinguished Careers Institute at Stanford University, and former Dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine. He participated in the Milken Institute’s Aging Innovation Summit, an extension of the Institute’s annual Global Conference, on May 1. A report emerging from the Aging Innovation Summit, including policy and other recommendations, will appear in the late summer.