This is the second article in a series that started with Late Work: From Recreation to Re-Creation.
“Like a cliff edge,” says my friend Tom, “deep, unexpected and utterly confusing.” “Like suddenly donning a cloak of invisibility you can’t remove,” says Jacqueline. The sense, described by a famous economist, ‘of seeing my children routinely ignore my advice.” The interviewee who calls several times to ensure that he is not identifiable in my article because the wounds caused by his own redundancy remain so raw, even after a year and a successful transition. The emotions people describe in moving out of mainstream midlife towards their third chapters are unexpectedly raw and powerful.
“Mature man needs to be needed,” wrote Erik Erikson decades ago. When someone suddenly loses their sense of purpose, their identity, their cause or their community – sometimes all of these all at once, the reaction can be shockingly profound. This is particularly true for people who have been used to positions of power, reputation or influence. “The sense of vulnerability – the feelings of being fragile, exposed, and assailable – takes various emotional forms,” notes Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her book The Third Chapter, Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50. “Some people feel an unfamiliar emptiness, a despondency; others, an unbridled rage; still others, a chronic anxiety.”
To Sara, a senior executive three years on from quitting decades of a big corporate role and a much-loved ‘work family,’ it’s “dark and stormy.” She echoes many Americans when she explains: “many of my friends I made through work. Work became not only what I was doing for income and intellectual stimulation, but also social stimulation. That concentration and focus is part of what makes us great at what we do, and the joy in the experience. It’s also what creates the isolation from leaving it.” Or as writer Carl Honore describes it, the “icy, crushing moment when you suddenly feel Old,” in his book Bolder: making the most of our longer lives. “Your birthdate, once just numbers in a passport, turns into a taunt, a memento mori, whispering proof that you are over the hill and on a one-way track to elasticated waistbands and the rocking chair. Life as you know it, as you want it to be, is over.”
One of the great paradoxes of our time, and our post-pandemic reconstruction, is the extraordinary mismatch between the demographic changes reshaping many countries (some going too old, others trending too young) and our individual, internal ability to adapt and cope with the shifts. Extreme emotionality is the result – a loud grinding of the psychological wheels trying to shift gear.
Sociologist William Bridges made the distinction between change and transition. Change, he explained, is what happens to us, all around, every day, in ways large and small. It can sweep you off your feet, propel you to the top of your field or mow you down unnoticed in the mass collateral damage of crowds. Transition is the internal adjustments needed to help you cope with change, adapt to its lessons and survive and thrive in the next normal. Everyone experiences change, not everyone transitions through it. This is what we will watch play out globally as we collectively struggle to emerge from Covid.
The Rational Rethink: From Pyramids to Squares
We know what the challenge is. Demographers and actuaries have been describing it for quite some time. Laura Carstensen at Stanford created a department devoted to its study. We are moving from the traditional age pyramids that humans have known for all of our existence – lots of young at the bottom and a few hardy elders at the top – to something never seen before. Squares: similar numbers of young to old, aka, few babies and lots of older folk. This has been more visible in some countries and regions than others for a long time. Japan is everyone’s go-to example. But many countries are now shrinking in size because of low birth-rates. South Korea is the first developed country to have birth rates fall below 1, half the replacement ratio of 2.1. It won’t be the last. Current projections show 23 countries halving their populations by 2100. By then, we’ll have shifted today’s squares to inverted pyramids, with a projected 2.37 billion people aged over 65 globally, and 1.7 billion under 20. The pandemic has depressed birth-rates further, as crises usually do. There is a lot of great writing and research on all this. The facts, the pension implications, the economic fallout. There are some great brains focused on the muliple policy challenges.
There are fewer focusing on the internal chasm.
Getting Our Hearts to Catch Up With our Heads
Massive external change, a global pandemic, is banging right into one of the biggest demographic shifts we’ve ever known as a species. And one of the biggest generations, the Boomers, is entering its third age, blindly unprepared for what awaits. The hardy, the wealthy and the entrepreneurial are finding purpose and pleasure in late reinventions. The other end of the spectrum – the unprepared, the poor, the anxious – are being tossed on the ageist scrap heap, and then voting with their wounds, electing populists who promise pride, flags and scapegoats to address the emotional overflow.
There is a way through, but transition requires a few rules:
1. Name the Thing. Normalise this transition. Everyone I talk to thinks they are alone in their craziness and fog. Menopause is becoming a thing, with a dozen new websites describing The Change. But that focuses on the physical and on women. We need to embrace the emotional – and include everyone. Let’s call this transition something. There is childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, adulthood, and senescence. But this penultimate phase is new and long and deserves a respected place in the lineage. I propose… Maturity. All other proposals welcome.
2. Integrate Head & Heart. This shift is about a lot more than money and pensions, although I’m not under-estimating the importance of either. It’s also about digesting the past, coming to terms with oneself – all that you’ve become, and all that you haven’t. It’s about having a place in a world, and among a people. Work, wellness, wealth… and worth.
3. Create a Transition Team. Don’t bowl alone. This work can be hard, challenging and destabilising to do on your own. Having a regular, personal advisory board of companions multiplies the learning, the fun and the self-knowledge. Try and find a tribe to fit into. Or build your own. I’ve survived this year’s lockdown in part thanks to the education and inspiration I received from what I ironically call the ‘Six Old Broads,’ a group of longevity experts, aged 59 to 73, I invited to a regular weekly discussion group. They are funny, wicked and wise and terrific advisors and guides to what lies ahead.
4. Rebrand the Third Age. Update our ageist tropes and assumptions. Get everything from advertising and films to children’s books and teaching curriculum to integrate an inter-generationally inclusive arc of life, with good endings, not a choice between Santa Clause (for men) and evil crones (for women).
I will explore and write more about these in subsequent articles – and work on them myself in my own third phase.
Harnessing the Power of the (B)Older*
There is a lot of talk about harnessing renewable forms of energy. The climate crisis requires a balancing out of energy forms across different sources, currently limited by the laws of physics.
It’s an apt parallel to our challenge across generations. We need to balance out the energy forms from different life chapters, with healthy lives stretching out ever further, as lifespans get longer. Can our longer human health-spans help us address the threat to our planet’s health? Our young are asking us in no uncertain terms: “Ok, Boomer, you gonna clean up the mess you made?” We shouldn’t leave it up to them. But to have a say, we need to redesign the rules of our elders’ engagement with the world – starting by not kicking them out of it.
We need to find a way to heal the hurt and harm of a system that pollutes not just our planet, but the very way we experience our ever longer lives. We will want to rewrite the 3 Rs that are no longer fit for purpose. And move from retirement, redundancy and rejection to Reinvention, Relevance, and a brand new KPI for our times, a Return on Life (ROL).