Review of Third Chapter: Past Midlife And Searching For Meaning

The Third Chapter: meaning at midlife

The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50

This book seems to be about preparing for the years right at midlife — the fifties and early sixties — and just past midlife, which Mary Pipher characterizes as the “young old.”

As I’ve noted in reviewing other books, I often think it’s impossible to write a really helpful book about this stage of life because (a) there just aren’t a lot of choices for everyone and (b) there’s such a variety of people, health levels, skills, aptitudes, background and more. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot deals with (b) by focusing on a small slice of the population: educated, healthy people without financial worries. Within that group, she finds common patterns: a yearning for something that can’t always be named, a resistance to change (possibly because successful people tend to resist changing a cherished identity) and finally a learning that differs from previous classroom experiences.

It is insights like this one that led me to give the book a 4-star rating rather than 3-star on Amazon. I agree with reviewers who complained about the length of interviews, details of subjects’ lives and narrowness of subject range. I also agree that the book doesn’t present as many original ideas and frameworks as readers might expect from extensive research. But as a former academic myself, I think it’s appropriate to work with a narrow sample, as long as you make it clear upfront, preferably in the book’s title. There’s value in asking explicitly, “If money were no object, how would people choose to enter their sixties and seventies?” At the same time, these people are insulated from many consequences of aging.

I also liked the author’s review of the way the notions of aging and retirement have changed. I would have liked to see more on this topic. When I lived in New Mexico I met people who lived in those “55 and up” communities, including one woman who took care of her aging parents. When her mom died, she was in her early fifties: too young, according to the community, and she was booted with no place to go. I also met people who wondered why I didn’t want to live with my age-mates, an idea that makes me feel suffocated. It’s good to have the historical perspective.

The best part of the book was the author’s interview with economist Matthew Gladstone. Gladstone’s perspective makes sense to me, possibly because I have a b-school background and enjoyed my economics courses. Gladstone suggests that as we continue doing work, the law of diminishing returns sets in. If I understand him correctly, he suggests that a successful lawyer might get enormous joy out of winning her first case, then her second…but at some point, she will be less joyful. It’s like eating a meal when you’re hungry; as you start feeling satisfied you don’t enjoy the food as much. I call this phenomenon the “been there, done that” effect, which often is confounded with aging.

We could extend economic thinking even further. When you reach a certain age, you certainly can invest whatever time, energy and money you have to learn something new or start a new venture. But your ROI – return on investment – will be limited. You might write one novel and maybe you will even sell it, but you won’t have time to go on and write a series that would bring you the real rewards that come to authors after a long career.

I don’t agree with reviewers who claim that the book reads like an academic article or a dissertation; I’ve seen too many examples of the real thing. In fact, I think the book would be stronger if the author had introduced more sociological concepts to frame many examples. For instance, the interviewees made transitions from high-level professional or organizational settings to a more right-brained, artistic and/or spiritual focus. I know many people, even those well past midlife, who never want to stop working. Volunteer work and the arts will never be enough for them (and I feel that way myself). The author notes that one interviewee, Pamela, feels frustrated because there are structural and institutional limits to her contribution. Yet anyone over 50 who wants to continue earning money faces much bigger challenges.

Finally, I admit to being jealous of those who found their new artistic callings at midlife or later. I wish I’d thought of singing lessons, but suspect I will still be advised to tap along to the songs rather than try to sing them. Over the past ten years, I’ve taken pottery classes in two different states. Each time I had less talent than anyone in the class. It was fun, though, and I resumed classes when I moved to Philadelphia. After some frustrating classes in throwing, I discovered ceramic sculpture, and now I mostly make objects — especially sneakers! I still have less talent than anyone but I’ve learned to compensate by choosing original subjects.

Still, I resonate to the experience of the interviewee, Josh, who was learning the piano: trying to aim for a higher level does bring psychic rewards. At the same time, unless you become a serious artist who sells work to an audience, it’s not nearly as satisfying as a professional career where you can be competitive and evaluated by the harsh criteria related to monetary rewards.

Yet another age stereotype of “careers after 50”

Baby Boomers Look to Senior Concierge Services to Raise Income – by Liz Moye

What I wrote to the Times:

As an aging Boomer I’m appalled by this article. The headline suggests that baby boomers could “raise income” by working as low-paid service workers.The rest of the article reinforces the stereotype of “seniors” as caring and nurturing people who are more concerned with doing good and leaving a legacy than earning money.

This stereotype encourages discriminatory attitudes among prospective employers and clients in the mainstream, profit-oriented business world. Not everyone wants to play a nurturing role, nor are many suited to perform these duties. Yet prospective employers, most authors of books about careers after 50, and even organizations like AARP, assume that seniors aren’t interested in demanding, competitive jobs with pay commensurate with their skills.

Additionally, the article suggests ghettoizing the elderly. The idea is that people of the same age will find a “social bond.” The NYT would never suggest that people will find a bond on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender. Just being part of the same demographic doesn’t mean you have anything in common or even want to spend time together. .

Think of all the 70+ legislators and politicians who run this country. They’re not exceptional in physical or mental capability. They’re exceptional because they aren’t forced to walk away from meaningful, challenging jobs that bring them enough income to hire their own repair and transportation services. They have access to good medical care, not desperate doctors who force them into rounds of unnecessary tests and debilitating drugs. They’re taken seriously in conversation with people of all ages.

Get real.


Talking To Younger People About Growing Old

A reminder of aging comes at the treadmill in the gym. At 85, Robert Goldfarb notices the graphs for runners’ heart rate goes up to age 70 and stops. It’s a reminder that he is “now officially one of the old-old.” Writing for the The New York Times, his article Talking To Younger Men About Growing Old reminds us that a lot of the frustrations with aging come not from our bodies, but from the way we are defined totally by our age, not by any other factor.

At age 85, Goldfarb is a competitive runner. Yet airport employees come rushing over with wheelchairs and offers of early boarding. (Frankly, I’d take those offers even if I were 55…or 35.)

Goldfarb finds that men his own age don’t want to talk about aging. As he says, men of his generation “regarded feelings as something to be endured, not discussed… Men in my platoon didn’t embrace when we parted after serving in the Korean War. Closer than brothers, we settled for a handshake, knowing that’s what men did.”

What Goldfarb describes is a cohort effect, which many people confuse with an aging effect. We often associate aging with the behaviors of our parents or grandparents, forgetting that when we reach their age, we won’t be like them.

I look at the 30-somethings in my gym who participate in boot camp classes. These classes didn’t exist when I was their age. In particular, women just didn’t do the kinds of exercises we do in class, unless they joined the US Marine Corps (and maybe not even then). Thirty years from now, these totally fit women won’t be moving like their great-grandmothers.

If you want another example, we used to see little old ladies riding on the buses, all dressed up to go shopping. They’d carry a tiny shopping bag from a high-quality store – just one little bag, which suggested they were shopping just for something to do, and felt they had to buy something. They’d be wearing heels and hose, with full make-up.

I remember telling a Canadian colleague, “One day these women will be gone.”

“Where will Eaton’s be?” he teased, referring to a Canadian store that somewhat resembled Macys.

Today Eaton’s is gone and so are the old ladies. I ride the bus in gym shorts and see women of all ages in jeans, sweats and yes, shorts. They wear short sleeves with their bra straps showing, sandals and sneakers. They shop on the Internet and make friends on Facebook.

Cohort effects trump age a good deal of the time.

Celebrating A Birthday … WHY?

Some things probably shouldn’t make it to the Internet. Today someone posted on LinkedIn about turning 60. He wrote a whole LI article too for all the world to see. I’m sure he meant well so I’m reluctant to post a link here. But his post embodies many stereotypes of aging.

This guy writes: One thing that becoming an old guy gives me is the right to write an article about what I’ve learned along the pathway that constitutes my life.

Saying you get wise with age is just another way of saying that biological age is related to abilities and skills. I know a guy who’s 32 going on 45 and some people who are in their 60s going on 12. Saying that you now get the “right” to share your views is another way to differentiate yourself from others in a meaningless way. You’ll scare off potential friends, employees and clients.

So what if you’re 60? You’re an expert in some things but not others. Simply living a long time doesn’t mean anything. Just look at some of our politicians.

As it turns out, the wisdom he offers consists of a bunch of cliches and opinions that come out of left field. For instance, “A dog will mourn you when you die, a cat will eat you. Just sayin’.”

Sixty years of living to learn that?

Then there’s “Always take a leak in the other man’s toilet.” I have no idea what that means.

Aging and Being Single: Grandmother Hormones

Today’s New York Times Style section included an article, The Bliss of Grandmother Hormones by Dominique Browning.

She has a remarkably frank comment about aging:
“When we’re young, aging looks sort of yucky; frankly, even though it is extremely un-P.C. to say so, it looks sort of yucky when we get there, too. Hence, the magical thinking around skin creams.”

It’s not clear what we’re to make of that comment. Is she saying that yes, older people are ugly and therefore worthy of discrimination?

But, she says, all these concerns about aging disappear when one enjoys the pleasure of holding “a six-pound newborn boy” against “a heart burnished with the patina of age.”

Probably true. As a single person, I get a lot of pleasure out of holding my cat or snuggling with the dog. Age is a non-issue. Just mutual acceptance.

Maybe I should try for an op-ed about that. Not as PC as grandmothers but surprisingly common.

“10 ways to respect your elders”

Not sure how I feel about this article. It’s not easy to transport attitudes across cultures.

In some ways the stereotypes are reinforced, such as asking “elders” for advice. Being old doesn’t automatically make one wise.

But in general, shouldn’t everyone be treated this way? In a medical setting, everyone should be addressed by last name and title. But if everyone else is on a first name basis, why make the “elders” stick out?

It’s fine to serve “elders” first at a family or purely social event, but not everyone likes to be reminded of his or her status. In some contexts, special care comes across as patronizing.

I’m especially nervous about the advice to intrude on someone’s privacy by assuming they’re lonely and want company. No thanks! Nobody should be in a nursing home – they’re evil places. If you’re at a party and see someone who’s alone, it’s nice to seek them out; in fact, it’s a savvy networking strategy.

Age isn’t a useful marker here. Anyone can be lonely, physically limited, or able to deliver wise counsel. Focus on the person, not the age.