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The Second Middle Age

It’s a brand new stage of life. Here’s what all of us can learn from it.

Pexels/Juan Pablo Arenas
Source: Pexels/Juan Pablo Arenas

Today, people of the baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, make up about a quarter of the U.S. population. Now ranging in age from 50 to 70, this is the generation that once warned, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” And, it continues to be a generation that thinks about age in a way that is unprecedented in all of history. Because of the advancement of modern medical technology, people in relatively prosperous countries like the United States can very reasonably expect to live into their 80s and even 90s. This is a dramatic shift from only a hundred years ago, when life expectancy was around 50.

This marvelous development has created new opportunities as well as new challenges for how we think about how we grow and change as human beings.

In the 1950’s, the great psychologist Erik Erikson, created one of the best-known theories of how people change over the lifespan, the psychosocial stages of development. Up until that time, psychologists had charted development only from infancy through the teenage years. Erikson filled in the rest, adding stages for young, middle, and late adulthood. Many people are surprised to find out, however, that his theory originally specified that the final phase of life began at age 55! It even was a convention among some psychologists to call this stage “old age.”

Today, as we enter the year 2019, very few people would consider 55 to be old. In fact, few would consider 65 or even 70 to be “old age.” That's because people are living longer, more vibrantly, and more actively than ever before.

This has given rise to a brand new stage of life, variably called the second middle age, the new middle age, or the second adulthood. Psychologist Jerrold Lee Shapiro, in his book Finding Meaning, Facing Fears, calls this period of life the “Autumn Years.” Like autumn, it can be a colorful time filled with great beauty. But, also like autumn, it can make us think about the passage of time and can sometimes be tinged with a sense of loss.

Unlike the other stages, however, the second middle age is still relatively uncharted, at least by psychologists.

“We’re living longer, and we don’t know much about what happens between the stage of building, working, and raising our children, and retirement,” Shapiro told me during an interview on Radio KPFA’s About Health. “It’s really tricky to find role models.”

It’s not that role models aren’t available. This generation includes Bill Gates, Samuel L. Jackson, Madonna, Whoopie Goldberg, Barak Obama, and George W. Bush, among others. The real difficulty is that all these people approach this period of life in dramatically different ways. Shapiro wanted to find out if there were any common trends in how people navigated this stage. As a result, he undertook an ambitious project: a series of in-depth interviews with men and women across the United States in the midst of their Second Middle Age.

According to Shapiro’s findings, even given their great differences, people who find the most meaning and happiness in this stage may have at least one thing in common: They shift how they think about time.

Throughout early and middle adulthood, people often consider time a resource to be used to build their futures. We invest time in endeavors that we believe will yield success or happiness later. “What makes us successful in life, at least in the Western way of being successful, is the ability to delay gratification,” explains Shapiro. “We put off the rewards and build to the future.”

But Shapiro discovered from his interviewees that finding meaning and happiness in the second middle age often requires a shift away from seeing time as a commodity to be invested, instead viewing it as a resource to be used here and now. Although Shapiro’s interviewees realized that many wonderful experiences still awaited them, they also understood that time was not an unlimited commodity and, therefore, must be relished. “Once we leave midlife and enter our autumn years,” he writes, “it is a time to refocus from building our tomorrows to savoring the moments of our present.”

But this transition isn’t easy. Many pragmatic and financial obstacles can hamper making the shift to living in the moment—far too many to address here. People often haven’t been able to save enough money, for instance, or are responsible for caring for ailing parents. For many of his interviewees, however, there was also a significant psychological challenge: their “shoulds.” Many of us have these: We believe we should always work our hardest, should do things perfectly, should be liked by everyone, or should always be caretakers for others. “We all have ideas in our heads about the correct way to live life,” Shapiro explains. “Sometimes that provides us with a marvelous moral compass that guides our lives in exactly the way it should. But, sometimes it gets a little overzealous.” That’s because many of these “shoulds” were developed when people were young, and were meant for a different era of our lives.

Shapiro suggests bravely examining which of these shoulds are holding us back from embracing life in the present, possibly being willing to let some of them go. Perhaps they served us well when we were younger, but no longer do. “At this stage,” he told me, “it’s time to start saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait: What do I want?’” He recommends considering a powerful, yet slightly morbid, question: If you only had a year to live, how would you spend it? "It’s a rare person who, faced with the end of life, says she would opt to spend the remaining time on chores or other demands,” he writes.

And perhaps that’s the most important lesson we can learn from these interviews: Not to forget about our own important needs and desires. Even while we attend to the many necessary tasks of our daily lives, we shouldn’t lose ourselves in the process. It’s a cliché, but also profoundly true: We only live once. While this realization may be especially important for people in the final third of their lives, it’s safe to say that we all can benefit from it.

Whether we’re in our second middle age or still far from our first one, this simple insight may help all of us not merely to live longer, but to live better.

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