Finally, It's 'My Time' A Period Once Considered Retirement Age, the Author Argues, Is Now a Time to Refresh, Revive and Reimagine One's Life
by Abigail Trafford
Washington Post Staff Writer
You're restless. Not so young, but restless. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?
You don't look old, don't feel old. But the kids are grown. The house is quiet. And at work? Talk of downsizing, takeovers, the R-word -- retirement -- and then, what? You can expect to live, and live well, for another three or four decades -- an entire life span in centuries past. Instead of winding down, you have to gear up. Instead of sitting back in a rocking chair, you have to find new purpose -- new work, new relationships. Longevity's imperative is regeneration.
But how do you master the art of reinvention?
Bernard Hillenbrand of Washington knows. The hard-charging executive, who for decades led the National Association of Counties, went to seminary and became a minister at age 60. Eighteen years later, he's in good health and a good marriage. "I have 20 years to go," he says with a smile.
Aida Rivera of Puerto Rico knows. The high school dropout went to college when she was nearly 50 and earned a college degree to become a therapist at age 60. She now counsels women who are trapped in domestic violence. "Nothing stopped me," she says. "This is my life. I love it. In helping others, I am helping me."
Mary Page Jones knows. The Alexandria native remarried at age 52, moved to Jerusalem and joined the peace movement in the Middle East. "I've always come up to the abyss and stepped over. A lot of it is my faith. When I step into the abyss, my experience is that I'm always caught. Something good happens," she says.
But they didn't know when they started down their new paths where they were going to end up. They didn't know they were part of a huge demographic wave that is altering every aspect of the social landscape, from politics and sex to family life to the creative arts.
A new stage has emerged in the life cycle. This bonus period comes after middle age but before old age. "It's not like we have a lot of role models," says James Firman, president of the National Council on the Aging. The bonus decades are a "gift -- years of opportunity, years of health," he continues. But no one told you that you have to write a new script for this "extra" period. "The concept hasn't sunk in. . . . We're all lost as a generation."
It is not an easy period. There are layoffs and mammograms, retirement parties and forgetting where you left your keys. There are wrenching losses, too. Deaths of family members and close friends. Major illness. The loss of income, the loss of status in a culture geared to youth. For most people, this new phase involves some crisis and a lot of confusion. Yet it also heralds unprecedented possibility.
In the early, high-stress years of juggling children and marriage and job, you get pretty exhausted from meeting other people's needs. As one thirty-something woman wailed at a college class reunion: "When is it going to be my time?"
My Time! It's here. Get used to it. And then get ready for the ride.
My Time comes when the primary tasks of adulthood have been completed, for better or for worse. Children have been raised. Marriages have been made -- and remade. Career goals have been achieved -- or not. You've paid the mortgage, filled out your resume. And then what?
It could be anything. Look around. You see them everywhere: two women of a certain age walking the Appalachian Trail, a group of men with craggy faces lingering over lunch, a graying couple holding hands at the matinee movie or scrambling over the rocks of the Grand Canyon. A sixty-something husband off building houses for his church in Mexico while his wife goes on a poetry retreat.
They are fit, energetic -- engaged and engaging. They have an aura that says: I'm free. I've paid my dues. I can make a difference.
My Timers are mentoring in schools, working on community projects, starting businesses, designing jewelry, painting portraits, running for political office, getting advanced degrees, nurturing grandchildren, falling in love, redefining marriage, managing their bodies and searching for their spiritual center.
A century ago, even 50 years ago, there was no My Time. Life was too short. Today many girls born in the United States can expect to live to 100. It's just dawning on Americans that a social revolution is taking place as people are living longer -- and healthier -- lives.
The Harvard School of Public Health and the MetLife Foundation recently sponsored a conference to find ways to tap the energy and talents of My Timers for public service. Next month, Civic Ventures, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, will hold a seminar on different pathways for people entering the bonus decades. On the agenda for the spring meeting of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on the Aging is a session entitled "The Emergence of a New Life Stage."
Hitting Second Adolescence
"It needs a name," says Harvard social scientist Lisa Berkman of the period when people realize they can aim for a new horizon. "We need a name that connotes the dynamics of adolescence."
It's a kind of second adolescence -- the mercurial transition period between midlife and My Time. As in "He's going through second adolescence" as a way to explain mood swings, job changes, shifts in relationships. You can almost see adult children rolling their eyes and saying, "Everything was fine until my parents hit second adolescence!"
The primary tasks in this period are to break away from middle adulthood and lay the groundwork for the future. Just as adolescence describes the child in transition, second adolescence chronicles the adult in transition.
The term adolescence didn't come into the culture until 1904, when American psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall published "Adolescence," a scholarly tome describing the teenage years as a separate and stormy phase in development. By then, life expectancy had increased to about 50. Adolescence emerged only as people lived long enough to stretch out the life cycle and allow themselves some time to grow up between childhood and adulthood.
A similar evolution is taking place today. With longevity, the life cycle is stretched even further, adding more stages in the psychological course of personal development.
The temptation is to deny, deny, deny. You try to extend midlife as long as you can. Between Botox and cardio kick-boxing, you hold on to your physical exterior -- and enjoy it. But a transition is taking place within. That can't be avoided with a chemical peel or a knee replacement. You may not experience a lot of turmoil in your life, but all the while you're undergoing internal and external changes -- events large and small.
These events are jolts to your system -- awakenings, talismans of the future. Some are wondrous -- the birth of a grandchild, a new work opportunity because of your experience, an unexpected flirtatious look. Some are devastating -- the death of a spouse, the diagnosis of a major disease; even a snub at a party.
The jolts accumulate: jolts in love, in work, in body, in spirit. Jolts of loss are messengers of closure; jolts of joy are tidings of opportunity. You swing between the poles of endings and beginnings.
Like a teenager, you undergo significant body changes, significant attitude changes. You may leave home and move into a retirement community or jump into an RV and take off for the West Coast. You become preoccupied with your body -- that wayward or absent hair, that achy heart, that wrinkle. You spend more time wondering about the meaning of life.
You're not going to dye your hair green and suddenly follow a rock band. Studies show that you're a lot wiser and more stable than a teenager. But you may color your hair and join an Elderhostel tour in Mexico. Just as kids leave their childhood behind and proceed to "starter" adulthood, you are leaving that long stretch of middle adulthood behind and proceeding to My Time.
In making the transition, you share two major features with adolescents. The first is empowerment. For teenagers, this is physical empowerment. For My Timers, it is life empowerment, "which comes from wisdom and experience rather than hormones and physical growth," explains Washington psychiatrist Harvey L. Rich.
Mary Woolley, 55, gets an unexpected glimpse of her empowerment when she stumbles upon her grandmother's costume jewelry in the back of a drawer. "When my grandmother was 55, she was an old woman," says Woolley. "She wore old-lady black shoes. She had false teeth. Her hair was gray."
As president of Research! America, Woolley is a rainmaker in medical science. Her hair is auburn. She wears a designer suit and carries a power briefcase. She is wife and working woman. Her four children are grown; one is married. She feels a slight rumble of anxiety. If she goes on to do something else, she wants it to be something big. She figures she probably has at least 30 more years of vitality to go. She is thinking New Stage. Not Old Age.
The second shared feature is dreaming. This is the opportunity to try out different destinies, continues Rich. One day, a teenager wants to be an astronaut, the next day a spy. The sign of getting out of adolescence is when young people get focused and settle on what they want to do as adults.
In second adolescence, you need to dream again. You need to open up and experiment. One day you take piano lessons, the next day you visit Civil War battlefields. Another day you invite the grandchildren to go camping. Or you go back to school like Bob Dodds, the former Mobil executive who is studying the classics at Georgetown University. "I'm here because I love the stuff," he says.
Some people know exactly what they want to do in My Time. But many do not. Dreaming is a way to figure out your "what next?" This period of uncertainty can go on for several years. "It's high-anxiety time," says Rich, who after losing sight in one eye, shook up his safe suburban life, cut back his practice and moved to France -- new culture, new cuisine, new language -- to test himself as a writer. "It takes courage -- the courage to invent yourself anew, the courage to break the old molds," says Rich, who made the break in his mid-fifties. "That's like smashing an old piece of furniture that's been handed down in the family for generations."
What's more, retirement is a misnomer. You may stop working at a job that defined your life for many years. But you don't stop. Everett A. Greene, Sr., retired from the D.C. Fire Department and turned to community service. He works at a food bank and mentors children in elementary school. Like many My Timers, he has a mission "to give back." As he says: "Somebody had to help me."
For financial and psychological reasons, you need to have something meaningful to do. The risk is that as you search for your "what next," you can get very scattered.
Bill Matuszeski retired a few years ago from the federal government after a 35-year career shaping environmental policy. He was excited to have the time to do all the things he wanted to do. Then he started careening from project to project.
"The big change is that you lose a core of your life when you retire," he says. "I went through a real period of chaos. . . . I had a list of 10 or 12 things I wanted to do. Books to write. Major trips. Boards to be active on. I didn't have any organizing principles."
Slowly he created a new structure for himself. He began going to the gym three days a week. He narrowed his priorities, learned to say no and changed his attitude. Instead of enhancing his resume, he looked for projects where he would have the broadest impact on improving the environment.
His marriage changed, too. His wife, Mary Procter, has a demanding job. For most of their marriage, Bill's career was dominant. "She had to deal with that," he says. Now she is in the zoom zone; her job has priority. Their roles have shifted. He has taken over the domestic side -- cooking and gardening.
"You have to spend a lot more time talking about how you feel -- how you feel about each other. Your own sense of yourself is changing so quickly. It's real easy to knock each other off balance," he says.
Couples are tested in this period. Illness, job changes, responsibility for older parents and young grandchildren all stress the relationship. You look across the breakfast table and think: another 40 years? The agenda is different. No more staying together for the sake of the children. The relationship opens up as each person is freer to pursue an independent course -- and the relationship may become closer now that there's just two of you. Or you may grow further apart.
Marriages are generally healthier in My Time. Researchers point out that the increase in divorce rates over the past several decades has weeded out many of the most conflicted marriages. "Couples in the most serious difficulty are not together," says psychologist Philip Cowan at the University of California, Berkeley. "On average, [older] couples are happier than younger couples."
Of course, many My Timers are single because of the death of a spouse. There's more going out in groups. Romance gets rekindled. Friendship becomes a primary bond. You have more time for relationships.
One of the hallmarks of My Time is the recovery of old friends. You go back to the past. You go to reunions. You go online to find lost sweethearts. Instead of a straight line, your life becomes more of a circle. One of the psychological tasks in My Time is to tie the threads of your life together. Instead of getting ahead, you turn to getting whole.
You also live with a sense of urgency. Though the odds are you will live for decades, you also know it could all end tomorrow. You make peace with mortality.
Alexandra Scott of Washington made her peace and understood the imperative of My Time. "Urgency is huge -- and the sense of the shortness of time you have," she said. "You need to make the best of these wonderful years. . . . Nothing frightens me. . . . I see people who are afraid. I say to them: You can deal with it."
Scott had dealt with death. Her son was killed in a plane crash. Her husband had died of lung cancer. She had rebuilt her family with her two daughters, turned to her first professional love, photography. On her resume were several books and exhibits. "I feel free," she explained. "You have to prepare to enjoy this time in life. The fact that my life is good now . . . I'm sort of stunned. And I don't even feel guilty."
A gala program to celebrate her photographs had been planned. But she didn't make it. Over a weekend, she developed stomach pains and went to the hospital. Three days later she was dead, at age 64. The cause was advanced liver cancer; the tumor had burst. She never knew she was sick.
Scott was someone who flourished in My Time. She leaves a legacy of love and accomplishment to her family and friends. She leaves a legacy of photographs to future generations. And she leaves an important message about the bonus years of My Time:
"Anything you really want to do -- now's the time to do it. Do it now! Not next year. Now. Stop everything. Do it now."
Adapted from "My Time: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life," Basic Books. Abigail Trafford can be reached at email@example.com. Join her today at 3 p.m. for an online chat about "My Time" on www.washingtonpost.com.
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