The good news from journalist Gail Sheehy is that you’re going to get a second chance at being an adult.
The bad news - the more sobering news, at least - is that you’d better plan for it now, or you just might screw it up, too.
“It is a trend across the whole country,” said Sheehy, “and the message is this: Unless you repackage your skills and gain the education you need to make yourself marketable in your ‘second adulthood,’ you run the risk of becoming obsolete.”
That message comes through loud and clear, and in a variety of ways, in Sheehy’s 11th and newest book, “New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time” (Random House). It is a sequel, in a sense, to her landmark bestseller from 1976, “Passages,” but it is also quite different because it recognizes that a true revolution has taken place in the past two decades.
The earlier book posited a view of individual American lives developing in stages and passing through predictable crises - or “passages” - that would deliver us to the next stage in adulthood. Sheehy, who was in her mid-30s when she conducted the research, ended “Passages” as her subjects approached 50 because “I found it impossible to imagine myself at that age.”
It’s amazing what life looks like now that Sheehy has reached 57. “New Passages” offers a profile of American life that could hardly have been imagined in the 1970s, including a chance at a “second adulthood” now opening up to men and women who pass through the often difficult sorting-out period of “middlescence,” usually in their early or mid-40s.
“There have been tremendous social and economic changes in the world in the last 20 years,” said Sheehy, who began assembling demographic data, conducting national surveys and interviewing individuals and groups for the new book in 1989.
She ticked off a number of reasons for the profoundly different social portrait contained in “New Passages”:
“First, there is the fact of equity in education - women are now gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in greater numbers than men,” she said.
“Also, there is the reality and the necessity of having two-paycheck households. And there has been the delay in reproduction by many women, with the end of women’s age of fertility increasingly being blurred.”
She also noted that today’s younger men have “become more comfortable with fatherhood,” often passing their open, nurturing style along to men in their 40s and 50s who are starting new families with new wives. Meanwhile, the first wives of those “start-over dads” are blossoming in new-found educational, financial and emotional independence - and often choosing not to get locked into a second marriage.
Finally, she said, the last 20 years have seen global economic changes that have been reflected in American corporate life by restructurings and downsizings that “have stripped the security from many people’s middle years - and will strip the security from later life as well, unless adequate preparation is made.”
Though “New Passages” tracks Americans of all socioeconomic classes from their 20s through their 80s, Sheehy’s main focus remains the era of the “Second Adulthood,” the last and longest of three adult phases in contemporary life. The first, a kind of extended adolescence she terms “Provisional Adulthood,” extends from about age 18 to 30. That leads to “First Adulthood,” roughly the ages 30 to 45, when men and women are busy starting jobs and families and establishing the patterns that will carry them through to middle age.
After the confused period of “middlescence” - “adolescence the second time around” - Sheehy believes most people move into a long Second Adulthood composed of two distinct phases: the “Age of Mastery,” from about 45 to 65, and the “Age of Integrity,” from 65 to 85 and up.
Settling now into the Age of Mastery are the early Baby Boomers of the Vietnam generation soon to be followed by the late boomers of the “me generation.”
This middle-life transformation, Sheehy writes, is a move “into a more stable psychological state of mastery, where we control much of what happens in our lives and can often act on the world, rather than habitually react to whatever the world throws at us.”
If approached sensibly, the Age of Mastery is a period of increasing self-confidence, rediscovered creativity and playfulness and a renewed spirituality.
The problem - and it looms as a large one in “New Passages” - is that while women seem to embrace this age and blossom in “postmenopausal zest,” men have a far rockier time adjusting - particularly former high achievers whose longtime employers find them excess baggage in an era of corporate downsizing.
“I wasn’t surprised by the (research) results on the women,” said Sheehy, who encountered much of the data when writing “The Silent Passage,” her 1992 bestseller about menopause. “But I was really, really surprised by the findings about men.
They are having a hard time making the change, not just because it’s a time of necessity with losing jobs, but also because it’s a time when all the traditional sources of masculinity are being questioned.”
Most make it, however, and when they do, they find an exciting new world open before them, a world no longer based on competition and power. The key in this Age of Mastery, Sheehy believes, is for both women and men to “follow your passion,” especially if entering school or the job market for the first time or creating a new career after being “surplused.”
“I hope that as the boomers move into this age over the next few years, they will redefine it as a ‘new adult revolution’ - the boomers will certainly push the envelope,” said Sheehy. “(But) the hardest thing for them to accept is that moving into the Second Adulthood is a good thing, something to be gained rather than lost.”