January/February 2010 Issue
New Options for the Second Half of Life
The life course has changed dramatically during the past century. Especially in developed societies such as the United States, we have experienced a longevity revolution. The average life expectancy in the United States has increased by at least 30 years, from 47 in 1900 to more than 77 in 2000.
We have, in effect, received a 30-year life bonus. In some countries—for example, Japan—the average life expectancy is about 85. In most modern societies, the number is still rising. The fastest growing cohort in America today is centenarians, whose numbers have increased from 3,000 in 1965 to more than 70,000 in 2000. Census forecasts suggest the number of people living to the age of 100 will reach 1 million in 2050.
In addition to many people living much longer, some have begun to transform the process of aging itself. What does it mean to be old today? Just 30 years ago, the conventional view of aging was defined by D words: decline, degeneration, disease, disability, dependency, and decrepitude. Old age was perceived to begin at 60 and proceed steadily downhill.
But times have changed as we’ve begun to observe a transformation in this period in life. We’ve all heard that 60 is the new 40 and 70 the new 50. Some older adults are demonstrating that older can be much younger than we thought.
In contrast to the conventional views on older adults, we’re learning about alternative models, such as successful aging, creative aging, vital aging, and aging well. The National Positive Aging Conference in St. Petersburg, FL, sponsored by AARP and other organizations, brings together several hundred professionals and researchers to explore new options for aging. The consensus, of course, is that aging isn’t what it used to be. As more people over the age of 50 develop lifestyles very different from what we have seen in the past, research has been discovering what enables such positive aging.
As the late psychiatrist Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD, explained, over the past 30 years we have learned that the brain, rather than diminishing, can actually add neurons and dendrites. Additionally, it can operate more creatively and effectively, using both the right and left hemispheres simultaneously. This gain in cognitive capacity is a mechanism that enables the kind of creative change of course in the lives of people whom I have been following through more than 20 years of longitudinal studies.
In my book The Third Age: Six Principles of Growth and Renewal After Forty, I describe people who have been progressing after 50 rather than declining. Their lives have been marked by R words: renewal, rejuvenation, regeneration, reinvention, rediscovery, and redirection. In my book, Changing Course: Navigating Life After 50, with coauthor James H. Krefft, PhD, I focus on people who are sustaining what I call second growth into their 60s and 70s. These pioneers on the frontier of positive aging have shown me possibilities, opportunities, and challenges in a new middle period of life. I call this period the third age. In some countries, this term basically refers to an age of retirement. But for me, it signifies an era in the life course after 50, made possible by a 30-year life bonus. It represents a new middle period with an option for fulfillment, following a second age focused on achievement and preceding the fourth age, which is a period of completion after 80.
How Can Elders Experience Fulfillment in the Third Age?
The first principle is mindful reflection and risk taking. These people have determined where they want to go next in their lives and what really matters. But after looking within, they accept the risks of doing something different to realize a dream.
In the latest book, we developed a model of third-age life planning in which we sketched out practical lessons learned from people who demonstrate the six principles. This planning is particularly important for people considering what retirement will mean to them personally. Like many baby boomers, the people in our study have rejected the conventional model of retirement, which has meant not working. With a 30-year life bonus, conventional retirement is inappropriate.
Third-age life planning requires a new focus on developing a new personal identity. Instead of identifying with roles and external achievements, people in our study ask, “Who do I want to become next?” A surgeon in the group says, “I have been trying to be the best doctor I can be. I still want that, but now I’m asking, ‘How can I become a whole person?’” This new identity calls for redefining success. As a female attorney put it: “I’m on a quest; how can I make a contribution? What legacy can I leave?”
Many have seen their new identities focus on a deeper sense of purpose. A former business leader notes, “I now see that my purpose is to develop my potential, to become the person I can be, and to share.” These individuals have been developing a fuller, richer sense of self than they had in their second age and, by doing so, have experienced a greater sense of fulfillment than they had previously known.
The third principle, building a new sense of identity, is primarily about becoming, but it also involves doing. Contrary to the conventional view of retirement, these people have been redesigning their activities to fit a growing sense of self. They may have left jobs, but they are still committed to productive, meaningful endeavors. We call these third-age careers, which are shaped quite differently from careers in our second age.
Looking Forward With Enthusiasm
We found the term life portfolio to be a graphic way to describe the process we have seen in these creative people. Just as artists build a portfolio by including a variety of their art forms and styles, the people in Changing Course have integrated their values, interests, commitments, and activities into their personal lives. We have called this a third-age life portfolio. The major components include redefined work and play, passions and new adventures, personal relationships, new interests and activities, civic engagement, and personal development, including learning, healthcare, and spirituality.
Most studies of positive aging, focused on the last decades of life, offer insights on new options in aging. My research, however, has focused on the third quarter in the life course, the third age. Those of us engaged in third-age life planning are learning about the substantially different options available after the age of 50. Taking charge of the direction of our lives in the third age allows older adults to experience fulfillment and to lay a solid foundation for unprecedented positive aging in the fourth age.
— William A. Sadler, PhD, is a sociologist and an author who has studied people redesigning their third age for more than 20 years.