'60 is the new 50': As life expectancy rises, how Americans are embracing life's third act
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100 years ago, average life expectancy in the U.S. was 47.
Today, it’s closer to 80 — and lots of people are using those extra 30 years to reinvent themselves.
“It is a time when most people neither feel young nor old and they’re looking for new meaning in their lives,” sociologist Sara-Lawrence-Lightfoot says.
Today, On Point: Dr. Tom Andrew says ’60 is the new 50.’ We talk embracing life’s third act.
Tom Andrew, formerly chief medical examiner for the State of New Hampshire. A consultant at White Mountain Forensic. In his third age, he got a master’s degree in divinity and is awaiting formal ordination as a Methodist deacon.
Chip Conley, strategic advisor for hospitality and leadership at Airbnb. Founder of the Modern Elder Academy, which helps people in their ‘third age’ find a new path forward. Author of Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. (@ChipConley)
Sara-Lawrence-Lightfoot, MacArthur Prize-winning sociologist. Professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Author of The Third Chapter: Risk, Passion, and Adventure in the Twenty-Five Years After 50.
Barbara Waxman, gerontologist. Author ofThe Middlescence Manifesto: Igniting the Passion of Midlife.
On sharing what life is like in the ‘third act’
Tom Andrew: “The idea of pulling back and being stagnant or disengaged is exceedingly unappealing in a time when even in one’s 60s, given the availability of the incredible health care that we have. I’m a healthy guy who has a lot of energy, and it seems to me that that energy is wasted, if you have withdrawn into your safe cocoon. I still want to share what I have, and I’d like to share it with young people.
“Obviously, youth is wasted on the young. So I want to try and impart to them what I have learned. And we think they’re not listening. We get the impression sometimes that they are dismissive. But if time over the decades in scouting has told me anything, the feedback that I get from some of these kids. Ten, 15, 20 years later tells me they were listening.”
You ran a successful boutique hotel company for 24 years, but you reached a point when you’d had enough. What happened?
Chip Conley: “There’s social science research on the curve of happiness that shows that, generally speaking, again, your mileage may vary, but between 45 and 50, we hit our low point in adult satisfaction, life satisfaction. There’s a lot of reasons for that. And I didn’t know that happiness research existed, and I hit 45 to 50 and I just had a really difficult time. I called it the midlife crisis. I now call it the midlife chrysalis, because actually for the butterfly, midlife is the chrysalis. It’s where it’s dark and gooey and solitary, but it’s also where the transformation happened.
“And so I had a flatline experience. I actually died multiple times over the course of 90 minutes, after giving a speech, and I woke up. I had the hotel wakeup call that I don’t want to do this anymore. So at the bottom of the Great Recession, I decided to sell my boutique hotel company … and wasn’t sure what was next for me at age 50. And it was around that time that my life just took off in ways that I hadn’t imagined.
“The societal narrative on aging is that if you can survive your midlife crisis, all you have to look forward to is disease, decrepitude and death. But in fact, the … research shows that after age 50, people get happier with each decade. And my 50s were my happiest decade of my life. I’m now 62 and really appreciating that I have something to offer. And my experience with the young founders of Airbnb, helping to guide their company was one example of realizing that I still had some relevance in the world.”
On the difficulties of changing your life in your third act
Sara-Lawrence-Lightfoot: “One of the things which we have to talk about is how difficult this is for many people, that this is really very, very challenging to take these risks, to leave whatever position you have of status and station and familiarity about, to leave that to pursue this thing which is uncertain, which is unclear. And I talk about the first thing that we must always have if we are going to do this: is a curiosity about the world around us. Really, we are deeply curious.
“We ask questions, we want to know. And then it seems to me, as we do that, that we have to lose some of our fear in taking this great risk. We have to lose our fear of failure because inevitably, in the short run, we might fail. And we have to lose our fear of seeming foolish to others. I mean, there’s something that may be infantilizing about beginning at the beginning when you don’t know the way and trying to find a way through this feeling of chaos and uncertainty. So losing our fear, accepting the vulnerability of this moment, being open to this, exposed to this, realizing that part of this process of growing and taking risks is being willing to be vulnerable.
“And I think the other thing that’s important as we talk about this challenging transition is to recognize that just because we moved to this next place, whatever it is, this moment of reinvention doesn’t mean that we lose the experiences of our former life. This is a very integrative, synergetic moment.”
On the cultural narrative around work
Sara-Lawrence-Lightfoot: “We are not set up for that as a culture. One of the things that Barbara Waxman said earlier is that we need to shift our cultural narrative about this. We also have to change our institutional sort of routines and patterns to allow for this and to allow for the voice and the vision and the work, the wise work of elders.
“And I think that one of the things I think is important as an educator is that I learned from … all of my interviewees, all of the folks said that the kind of learning that they were involved in and engaged in, in school, even when they were incredibly successful, being the first to raise your hand. Speed, knowledge, acquisition, achievement, purpose, purposefulness, blind sort of purposefulness and competition are just the wrong elements and dimensions for the kind of learning and thinking that are required to take on this third chapter with imagination and with wisdom that needs to be collaborative.
“It needs to be patient, it needs to not be cautious. It needs to allow for failure. We’re not hiding our failure. We’re learning, in fact, from the ways in which we frame fail how we learn best. So there are ways in which the curriculum, the pedagogy, the teaching and learning that goes on in schools doesn’t anticipate the longer arc of life and the kinds of ways in which people learn in what my children used to call the wide, wide world. Right. So that’s another thing that we need to think about.”
TedX Talks: “Becoming a Modern Elder | Chip Conley” — “Life experience is making a comeback. A “Modern Elder” is as curious as they are wise and they are becoming indispensable in a world in which power is escalating to the young faster than ever before.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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