Life’s Timetable Finds Room To Run

In my view, we have a greater need than ever before to recognize the passages of our lives, not only because we are living longer, but because the rapidity and complexity of changes taking place in the world are constantly reshaping the adult life cycle into something fundamentally different from what we have ever known.

We are in the midst of an economic and electronic revolution. Everything - money, war, political change, the rise and fall of great corporations - moves faster while our attention spans grow shorter. We seldom make time to process even the most meaningful experiences of our lives; we just speed through them.

Moreover, recent experiments have shattered our common notions about life expectancy. Scientists have uncovered the first evidence suggesting there may be no inborn limit to how old people can grow. The new research, led by James Carey at the University of California at Davis and James Vaupel of Duke University, suggests that given good health practices, the current life expectancy of about 75 years old may rise to 90 and 100 in the foreseeable future.

With luck then, once baby boomers pass 45, another whole adult lifetime lies before them: 30, 40, even 50 years. This reality does not easily compute with our old timetables. Along with any surprise, of course, come disorientation and a certain amount of anxiety. We now have not one but three adult lives to be anticipated, prepared for, mapped out. For clarity of discussion, I have given titles to these overarching periods:

Provisional Adulthood (18 to 30)

First Adulthood (30 to 45)

Second Adulthood (45 to 85 plus)

Each presents its own struggles and begs for a new dream. It is likely that we will share these three lives with different partners or journey through one or more of them alone. Young men are likely to have two marriages. Serial families will be the norm. A third partner, to share the mellow years after 55, is also increasingly common for a man, but he often doesn’t marry her. And all along, we have new opportunities for development.

My impression from talking to men and women all over the United States is that this new perspective - only milliseconds old in evolutionary terms - has not caught up with most people.

How do we find our way to this exciting Second Adulthood? I see a brand-new passage in the 40s, when the transition from the end of First Adulthood to the beginning of Second Adulthood begins. The years between 45 and 55 constitute a bonus stage - truly new territory. The vast New Territories of Second Adulthood, as I see it, break down into two major stages:

Age of Mastery (45 to 65)

Age of Integrity (65 to 85 plus)

Have you asked yourself: What can you make of your next life? Whom do you want to share it with, if anybody? What new ventures or adventures can you now dare try? What old shells can you slough off? Are there fatal traps you should avoid? What about those exploratory spiritual journeys you keep putting off? How can you best give back? What investments in learning and changes in lifestyle are you willing to undertake to make all these extra years ahead livable? How long do you want to live?

People at 50 today stand astride two centuries: With one foot planted firmly in the familiar playing field of the second half of the 20th century, the other foot is free to dig into the new territory of the next 50 years beyond the millennium. The emergence of a second life to live cries out for new models, myths, heroines and heroes. Let’s hope you will find some in this column who speak to you.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syndicate

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