Cover image for The third age : six principles of growth and renewal after forty
The third age : six principles of growth and renewal after forty
Sadler, William A.
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Perseus Books, [2000]

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xviii, 235 pages ; 25 cm
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HQ1059.4 .S23 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Medical and technological breakthroughs have, in effect, given most of us the equivalent of a thirty-year life bonus. As a result, we face a new period in the middle of our lives, what Europeans call the third age, which challenges us to change the way we live and transform the way we age. Based on a major study of the unfolding lives of a select group of men and women (from mid-forties to eighties), The Third Age shares their collective wisdom and illustrates how we can creatively redesign our lives in anticipation of and through our added years.Rediscovering a youthful spirit and staying truly involved in life demands an attitudinal shift, a resistance to outdated stereotypes, and an effort to balance the seemingly paradoxical pulls on our time and energy. Practically instructive and powerfully inspiring, The Third Age expertly guides us toward and through the second half of our lives.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

If you're resigned to thinking that after 40 it is all downhill, then this book is not for you. This book is based on 12 years of case studies of men and women between the ages of 40 and 80 and tracks how they made their lives better in the often troublesome second half. Using the case studies, Sadler outlines principles (for example, "Developing Realistic Optimism") that can result in happier and more purposeful living. Many library patrons may be finding midlife an unhappy time. This book offers one course that shows it is possible to thrive after 40. For all self-help collections. --Marlene Chamberlain

Publisher's Weekly Review

Unlike scholars who view human development in terms of stages or life cycles, sociology professor Sadler prefers the current European view of life past 50 as the third age (the fourth is old age), and offers encouraging evidence of the potential for continued growth and lifelong learning. From his 12-year study of several dozen men and women aged 45 to 80, he draws unconventional principles for creating midlife renewal, which he supplements with suggestions on how readers can develop and nurture them in their own lives. Among the apparently paradoxical strategies that consistently emerge from his inspiring and honest portraits of his vibrant subjects are balancing mindful reflection with risk taking; balancing personal freedom with deeper relationships; creating a positive identity and maintaining optimistic realism; creating meaningful work and play; caring for the self and for others. Sadler's theoretical framework makes his advice more thought provoking than prescriptive, so this gracefully written volume is more challenging than many self-help guides. Still, contemplative readers will find it accessible and absorbing. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Making the Most of Your Thirty-Year Life Bonus AN UNEXPECTED CHALLENGE The lengthening life span of inhabitants of modern advanced industrial societies is both a challenge and a blessing. Our average life span has increased so tremendously that we are, in fact, experiencing a longevity revolution. Many people are living nearly twice as long as humans previously were expected to live. In eighteenth-century America, the average life span was barely forty. The Population Reference Bureau has described an unprecedented gain in average American life expectancy from 47.3 years in 1900 to 75.5 years in 1993. As we approach the twenty-first century, the average American life span is nearing eighty. In a few other countries it is already higher than that. The result of all this longevity is that many of us have something like a thirty-year life bonus.     It is not unrealistic now to think about living one hundred years or more. Dr. Walter Bortz of Palo Alto, California, who has specialized in vital aging, argues forcefully that we should plan on it. More and more adults already live a whole century. Between 1960 and 1996 the number of centenarians in America increased from 3,000 to over 55,000. In the next century millions will pass that milestone. Furthermore, Dr. Thomas Perls of the Harvard Medical School has found in his study of a select group of centenarians that, contrary to popular assumptions, the oldest of the old can lead active, independent, interesting lives until the very end. With more time ahead of us than we ever dreamed of, we have an unexpected opportunity to live vitally and purposefully for a whole century.     To respond to this longevity challenge, we need first of all to examine not only our goals and lifestyles but also our beliefs and attitudes toward becoming older. Even with good health and a pension a longer life span is a mixed blessing. Greater longevity has not been produced by a fountain of youth. More years could just mean that we have a lot more time to be old. Except for antiques and fine wine, the word old does not resonate with "value-added." In our youth-oriented society, being old has little going for it. Our challenge today is not primarily to stretch out our lives by adding more years. It is to learn how we can make the many more years that we can expect better.     The longevity revolution will have a tremendous impact on our society as well as on our personal lives. Social scientists now describe us as an aging society. Some 80 million Americans, nearly a third of the population, will soon be over fifty. This age wave is already starting to produce dramatic changes. Some forecasts of the aging society predict dire results. But the dismal forecasts we often read about are predicated on flawed assumptions about the second half of life. Alan Pifer, former chairman of the Carnegie Corporation Project on the Aging Society, has suggested that longevity gives us a new third quarter in our life span, which "should constitute a period of rebirth, with the awakening of new interests and enthusiasm for life, and new possibilities for being productive." Increased longevity presents us with both a personal and a social challenge: How can we tap our potential and increase social productivity? That is, how can we make the more years better not only for ourselves but also for our society? If we can find a way to respond to this more complex challenge creatively, not only will our personal lives be enriched, but the future scenario of our aging society can also take on an entirely different, brighter character. THE NEED FOR A NEW MODEL When considering the prospects of living longer, we should recognize that we are handicapped by what we have learned about "growing old" from previous generations. Our inherited beliefs about aging do not fit well with the possibilities in our future. A conventional paradigm of the life course and aging, with its assumptions and negative attitudes, can be illustrated graphically by a sigmoid curve:     After a brief dip in the learning curve during early adaptation to life, assuming an absence of catastrophes and disabilities, a person progresses towards a peak near the middle of life, reaches a plateau, and eventually begins a gradual descent. The poet T. S. Eliot at age seventy expressed a conventional view of the second half of life in unconventionally blunt terms: "I don't believe one grows older. I think that what happens early on in life is that at a certain age one stands still and stagnates." From this perspective our prime occurs in the first half of life. If we hold on to this view, then with a longer life span we can expect to spend a lot more time stagnating than did previous generations.     In the old model the second half of life also arrived sooner than it does now. Just fifty years ago middle age was thought to begin around thirty to thirty-five, as growth was seen to taper off. Now middle age seems to start somewhere in the forties. Yet even though our life span has expanded, the second half of life is still commonly perceived to be an unwelcome era inevitably marked by endings, loss, and decline. In his influential text, Dr. Theodore Lidz, former chair of psychiatry at Yale University, wrote about people in their forties: Middle age is initiated by awareness that the peak years of life are passing. A person realizes that he is no longer starting on his way, his direction is usually well set, and his activities will determine how far he will get.... The middle-aged individual becomes aware that ill health and even death are potentialities that hover over him.     About the same time Lidz articulated this view in the 1960s, the idea of a midlife crisis floated through the media and was often accepted as gospel. In our society middle age has rarely been appealing; it is usually perceived as a short transition from the prime of adulthood into a downhill process of aging.     Getting older has commonly been associated with five deadly D words: decline, disease, dependency, depression , and decrepitude . After these, of course, comes the sixth dreaded D word, which marks the end of the line. Everyday speech about the second half tells it all: we've "passed our prime"; we're "over the hill." In spite of all the "golden" rhetoric about life after fifty, middle age and aging have been generally viewed as "downers." Most of us are held hostage by the mystique of aging.     It is time to trade in our old model for a new one. My research has convinced me that we have the chance to transform the second half of life. It can be richer, more vibrant, and more meaningful--as well as much longer--than we have so far anticipated. If we hold on to old perspectives and assumptions we will miss that opportunity. But if we learn to take advantage of our life bonus, we can design our future so that it is characterized by vital R words such as renewal, rebirth, regeneration, revitalization , and rejuvenation . NEW DISCOVERIES ABOUT ADULT OPTIONS AND AGING Increasing numbers of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, gerontologists, and medical researchers have been finding that the usual patterns of midlife and aging in the old model are neither normal nor inevitable. Alternatives exist that most of us have not yet seriously considered. During a research project that stretched out over twelve years, I discovered how we can unleash our human potential for the second half of life.     Near the start of this research, I interviewed in the same month two middle-aged men who might seem to fit a recognized pattern of normal, healthy adaptation. Both of them at that time were businessmen. Their marriages were reported to be happy. Both had grown children, and one had grandchildren. Both had experienced peaks. They saw their lives as successful in many ways, particularly in work, love, and financial security. Neither had experienced midlife crises, health problems, or the feelings of stagnation and depression often mentioned in literature about middle age. Both exhibited traits of healthy maturity: strong on control, self-confidence, a sense of humor, and rewarding personal relationships. One difference between them was age--one is fourteen years older than the other. Another marked difference between these men, whom I will call Paul and John, is reflected in their outlooks and lifestyles. Do their ages explain this difference, as our conventional assumptions would predict? Paul Q: How do you feel about yourself at this time? A: This is a great period in my life. All periods have been good, but the best is still to come. Life is getting better. I anticipate making some changes. Q: Do you plan to retire? A: No. But I do plan to develop my career in a different way. I have a good friend who used to be a workaholic, who has been talking with me about designing a lifestyle that will enable me to tap other aspects of my personality and spend more time with my family. In a few years I expect to make some changes. Q: As people reach the midpoint of their lives, they become conscious of their mortality. How has awareness of your own mortality affected your life? A: I know I have an end; but that makes me want to finish up what I'm doing and get on with the next phase of my life. There might be an accident or a stroke, so I am eager to get on with my life. I'm afraid of missing out, but deep down I think I have a lot of time left. Q: How would you describe your marriage and family life? A: We're a close family. My wife spends a lot of time at home, especially with our younger children. During the week my time is pretty much taken up with work. After a hard week, I need some time to be alone. I've learned that to be really giving in relationships to the family, I need some time by myself. I often take off Friday night to spend time alone on the shore or in the woods. On Saturday morning my family joins me, and we spend the weekend together. My wife is supportive of my need to be independent, though she tends to be more dependent. We're a close couple and still enjoy sex after years of marriage. I look forward to our upcoming vacation. She tends to get all wrapped up in children, and I like to have time with her when she is freed up to be more spontaneous. Q: You have mentioned how important it is to be caring about your family. How do you take care of yourself? A: I'm an active person and have learned it's important to be physically active, especially to work off tensions from work. I skip lunch to work out in our company's exercise room, and I spend as much time out-of-doors as possible--kayaking, hiking, playing tennis, and swimming. I'm more organized now to make sure there's time for me. I am careful about diet, especially since I learned I had a high cholesterol count. I don't smoke and drink only a little, mostly beer with my older kids or friends. John Q: How do you feel about yourself at this time in your life? A: I feel good about myself right now. In some ways this is the best time, especially in terms of stability and financial security. I'm not "running for sheriff" as much as I used to; I'm more relaxed. I made a major change, leaving the company after more than twenty years. That was like separating from a parent. My new position is a good one, and I might soon move up to head of operations in the plant; but that isn't so important anymore. Q: Do you plan to retire? A: Sometimes I think about retiring. But really I've had the feeling that I won't live to see a pension. I just live from day to day. Q: How has awareness of your own mortality affected your life? A: The thought of death doesn't really affect me, except to be concerned about financial security. My children are grown and independent, so I am mostly concerned about my wife. She talks about retiring and moving up to Vermont, but that doesn't appeal to me. You can't even get television in some of those areas. Q: How would you describe your marriage and family life? A: We have a good relationship. When I was younger, I put in ungodly hours at work. Those were years where I often put in over seventy hours a week. It was hard on her and the kids. I used to tell myself there's a grander purpose being served, and it's good for you. I have a more intelligent balance now. I don't put in so much time, so I have more to spend with my wife. We work around the yard, and she drags me shopping. We eat outa lot. Often on weekends we look for antiques; that's a new interest. We still enjoy sex, though that's less important than it used to be--I'm less interested than I was when I was younger. Q: How do you take care of yourself? A: I do absolutely nothing to take care of myself. I don't exercise and was never into sports. I can't get myself motivated to exercise, even though I've got a growing paunch that bothers me a little. I probably eat fewer sweets and less meat; I've learned to like salads. That should help to keep the weight off, but I don't see any results yet. I still smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and drink occasionally. I'm slowing down, making life simpler. I have just about all I need, so I think I'm living a more balanced, easier life. I'm satisfied.     These two interviews might seem to support the conventional view about a supposedly natural life structure and progression of middle age. Paul is still energetic, with bold dreams and aspirations, taking charge of his life and preparing to move in new directions, thinking young and taking passionate interest in many different activities. Although he has reached one peak, "the best is still to come." John fits the stereotype of a man about to enter the later part of middle age: having reached a peak, he is slowing down, seeking simplicity and security, is less energetic and passionate, more complacent and stoic about what life still has to offer. With what you know so far, you might think that their different perspectives and experiences can be explained by age.     What challenges our assumptions is this startling fact: at the time of these interviews Paul was fifty-eight years old, and John was only forty-four! The younger John fits the old mold; the older Paul is breaking it. Surprising discoveries like this caused me to question conventional assumptions about what it means to get older. As I encountered a number of men and women like Paul, I started to explore their lives more deeply.     After interviewing about two hundred people in their late forties and fifties, I realized that some of them, like Paul, manifested qualities of exceptional growth just at the time we should expect degeneration. They were changing the way they lived and how they experienced aging. I chose to focus on them and began to ask, What is happening in their lives? What terms can I use to describe this phenomenon appropriately? At first, I saw a few salient characteristics; but I was not sure I was seeing anything but anomalies, exceptions to a general rule. I started to compile a list of traits and soon had over twenty of them. Yet I still did not know quite what to make of my discoveries. I wrote several chapters to see if I could clarify my thoughts; but clear insights would not jell. I was still trapped in the old paradigm. Eventually, I returned to the growing pile of interview transcripts and did a quantitative analysis. That helped me discover a real-life pattern outside the conventional adult development model. It also reinforced my hunch that I had found an alternative to usual midlife patterns, one that could be a model for the rest of us. I decided to get back in touch with about thirty individuals to learn how their lives were unfolding. I later enlarged the pool, adding people from different regions and countries as well as individuals in their sixties and seventies.     By tracking adults like Paul for over a decade, I at last came to see much more clearly what this alternative to ordinary middle-aging involves. Paul symbolizes an emerging potential within most of us. John, on the other hand, symbolizes the usual pattern of adult life described by Lidz--cresting in the forties before subsiding into an expected decline of aging. He represents an option we might follow. One reason John stalled was because his role models came from his past. In his midforties he already saw himself becoming more like his father, who died before reaching sixty. He told me he sometimes saw his father when he looked in the mirror and felt him in his stride. He saw life offering him fewer significant parts to play. As he put it, "I'm not running for sheriff as much as I used to." A major concern was for financial security. His ideas and attitudes directed him down a well-worn path. Paul carved out a different direction. He consciously decided not to follow the pattern of his parents and their generation. During his fifties he thoughtfully worked at building a different model, one that supported a positive change of direction and renewal.     As we face our futures, we could go either way. We now have a choice because the longevity revolution has provided us with what Europeans call our third age, a new period in our lives stretching from the late forties to age eighty. As I shall explain later, it contains hidden potential previous generations did not have. Not everybody believes we have this potential. Even psychology is divided. Some psychologists, like the late Swiss psychotherapist C. G. Jung, have agreed with the words of Robert Browning's character, Rabbi Ben Ezra: Grow old along with me! The Best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made.     In this view our prime occurs in the second, not the first, half of life. However, the American psychologist B. E Skinner asserted that Rabbi Ben Ezra was wrong; to expect that the best is yet to be would be a great mistake. On this point I side with Jung. There is now substantial research to support Browning's Rabbi, at least in terms of the possibility. If I am right, we need a whole new scenario for adult life, one that is open to creativity for the second half of life and aware of our growth potential in a new historical situation. And we need reliable insights to guide us in making this scenario a reality. Of one thing there is little doubt: if we hang on to old expectations, we are more likely than not to live down to them. THE ALTERNATIVE TO MIDDLE-AGING: SECOND GROWTH When you think about age, what does it mean to reach fifty or sixty or seventy? What does being any age mean? Do numbers tell the story? Are developmental experiences predictable? Are the depressing D words programmed into our DNA? Is biology destiny? Not quite! We know from natural science how powerful our genetic makeup is. Yet adult life is influenced, not controlled, by a biological clock. Chronological age does not predict what adults in the middle of life experience nor how they live. Culture, though, experience, history, and individual initiative intervene. We have much more plasticity than we might previously have assumed. (Continues...) Excerpted from THE THIRD AGE by WILLIAM A. SADLER. Copyright © 2000 by William A. Sadler. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.