We live such long lives now, yet our social world has failed to keep up. I first felt this when male peers passed me over as “too old” to date when I was only in my thirties, and I feel it now, when it is so difficult to find anyone at all in my forties, and I consider the idea of spending decades alone. I feel it when I’m tired of my job and imagine plowing ahead another twenty-five years or so with no breaks from the workplace. God forbid we quit a job before finding another one, especially in an ageist job market, despite how much we may need a break.
It’s time to think about these long, undefined periods of life and imagine what can be done with them other than more of the same (especially those of us who aren’t busy caring for families):
The old map of life, which guided us for generations, was rapidly becoming an anachronism. What’s the category for people like me? There are a growing number of us who can be classified as neither-nors. Neither young nor old. Neither retirees nor of traditional parenting age. Tired, perhaps, but neither ready to be retired nor able to afford it. The truth is, I will probably be working for another twenty-five years, the second half of my adult life.
…while we’ve been remarkably adept at extending lives, our imagination and innovation in remaking the shape of those longer lives have been struggling to keep pace. In the words of anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, we’re “living longer and thinking shorter.” The situation is beginning to fray, especially in the period of life that is emerging between traditional midlife and what used to be occupied by retirement and old age. It’s fair to say that this condition constitutes a long-standing problem, one that existed even before longer lives and changing demographics made it a much bigger one. The territory between middle age and old age has long been shaky ground, “unstable social space,” in the words of cultural historian Thomas Cole.
As the “third act” notion suggests, the reality is that the end of middle age is no longer, for most people, attached to the beginning of either retirement or old age. (It’s like the transcontinental railroad, started at both ends, designed to eventually meet. However, the two ends of this project — life — don’t meet anymore.) Individuals left in that lurch, in this unstable space that has no name, no clear beginning or end, no rites or routes of passage, face a contradictory culture, incoherent policies, institutions tailored for a different population, and a society that seems in denial that this period even exists.
Never before have so many people had so much experience and the time and the capacity to do something significant with it. That’s the gift of longevity, the great potential payoff on all the progress we’ve made in extending lives. Realizing these possibilities will require the courage to break from old and familiar patterns that once were our friends but just don’t work any longer. It means considering ideas like “gap years” for grown ups, new kinds of internships and fellowships for Americans moving beyond midlife, remodelling higher education to help retrain people who have been working for 40 or 50 years, even the creation of new kinds of investment accounts to help cover the costs of transitioning to new careers.