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It is a word that has been assigned to the passage of wealth, to privilege granted those who have connections to important others, and to historical events that influence later generations. It is also frequently invoked as something to be considered and determined in later life:

What legacy will you leave future generations?

What will your legacy be?

For the month of June 2021, we will use the wAGING change platform to explore the relationship of legacy and aging, to consider intersections between legacy and privilege, and to transition this blog from one author to its future incarnation…its legacy, if you will.

I find it helpful whenever I have a concept in mind to look it up in several English-language dictionaries to see if the meaning that rises to the top of my mind is reflected in the usages they foreground. In both the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge online dictionaries, the first definition of legacy is about wealth. This definition focuses on the passage of money or property from one generation to another, and is synonymous with bequest or inheritance. Merriam-Webster and include as their second definition the access to membership in an organization that is granted due to relationship with a current member, typically through familial or political ties. This is represented in things like legacy admissions to universities, or legacy memberships in sporting or country clubs.

In both of these definitions, the concept of legacy is to be in possession of something that would benefit someone else, and to be in the position of passing it on. What is the legacy of those who don’t hold material possessions to pass on? Or lack the influence to grant membership or status in an organization? How is legacy considered in these circumstances?

Interestingly, in the Oxford English Dictionary, that authoritative source which one needs a bit of privilege or money to access, the origin of the word legacy (circa 1300-1400 AD) and its early usages weren’t so focused on what someone had to pass on, but rather on the act of passing, or sending forward, a message through a delegate. That delegate, the messenger or Legacie, had a responsibility to the message, a commitment to ensure its safe passage and to fulfill the desires of its sender. Legacy was rooted in relationship, in trust, and in the fulfillment of shared information.

Ok, so where am I going with this trip several centuries back in time, and what does it have to do with legacy and aging?

Multiple online and print sources encourage us, especially as we age, to consider the legacy we want to leave – the stamp, if you will, that we make on the world. Leaders, theologians, and self-help gurus all suggest that the way in which we live life everyday establishes a legacy as to how we will be remembered – the legacy, it is often said,  of a life well lived. That concept, as it turns out, is for many people less associated with wealth and more with personal relationships.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch/Age Wave conducted a survey in 2019 (reported in Forbes) about end-of-life planning, and asked for definitions of a life well lived. Those that topped the list included:

  • Having family that loves me
  • Being surrounded by friends
  • Making a positive impact on society

Fewer than 10% of those survey respondents mentioned wealth in the traditional sense of money or property.

Canadian sociologist Lyndsay Green, author of The Well-Lived Life: Live with Purpose and Be Remembered, emphasizes that everyone leaves a legacy whether intentional or not. Her association of legacy with aging is based in a notion that at some point in our lives, we stop thinking as much about the future and what we will become, and pivot to thinking instead about what we wish we had done. She encourages readers to think about being fully engaged in everyday life, as opposed to tangible possessions,  as the legacy they will leave.

And so it begs the question – what does our legacy matter to those with whom we leave it? If we shift the focus from the one granting -or living- a legacy, to those receiving it, what do we want them taking forward in time? With what message are we entrusting them? What legacy do they need us to leave behind?

For next time, a twist on those questions: what is the relationship between privilege, personal agency, and legacy?

©2021 JLWomack: Professor Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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