I've been thinking recently about sixtysomethings and how much they're like twentysomethings. (I can say "they" instead of "we" for just another eight months; I turn 60 myself next October, a birthday I'm definitely not looking forward to.) 

Author and photographer Bill Hayes calls it the Post-Anything-Is-Possible stage. A few months ago he wrote a New York Times op-ed about the relief it brings. When you're middle aged, he wrote, certain doors have finally and irrevocably closed: you won't ever have that baby or become a doctor or sail solo around the world. There's an upside to the loss of these dreams. "When possibilities stop being endless," Hayes wrote, "you can narrow the choices. Indeed, you can make hard choices, without resorting to dreams, without relying on maps, without abandoning duty. Is that not what wisdom is? Knowing when to unload what one will not need or use before approaching the next bridge." 

The prolongation of the lifespan has led to a reassessment of all the traditionally-understood stages. And just as the transition between adolescence and young adulthood has become more elastic, arguably creating a new developmental stage between ages 18 and 29 that some are calling "emerging adulthood," so has the transition between middle age and old age begun to transform. No one has given it a formal name yet, but people are definitely studying it. The same kind of scholarly consortium that looked at the "transition to adulthood" was also created to investigate "Midlife in the United States" -- in both cases, a group of scholars united into a professional network sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. And in the case of midlife, the resulting publications have led to the overall impression that midlife (which they define as 40 to 60, younger than the important decade I'm talking about here) is a time of psychological turning points, growth, and -- despite the conventional wisdom and my own idiosyncratic hang-ups -- overall happiness.

The cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson has looked at this age range, too. Bateson, the daughter of Margaret Mead, followed her mother's lead in thinking about how societal roles affect individual's psychological development. The lengthening of overall life expectancy, she writes in Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, has "opened up a new space partway through the life course, a second and different kind of adulthood that precedes old age." Not only are the ages between 60 and 70 changing, according to Bateson, but so is every other stage of life as a result, the ones that come before as well as those that come after. She thinks of the sixties as the dawn of a period of life she calls "Adulthood II." I like that way of looking at it.

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About the Author

Robin Marantz Henig

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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