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.