RICHES OF THE THIRD AGE
in the inaugural edition of The LLI Review, Spring, 2006)
A. Sadler, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology and Business
of Research, Center for Third Age Leadership
Longevity Revolution has not only given Americans the equivalent of a
30-year life bonus, it has changed the structure of the life course. A
new period emerging in the middle of life – The Third Age – provides
unexpected opportunities and challenges for individuals, society, and
Lifelong Learning programs. The author reports on significant findings
from 20 years of research, using longitudinal studies, of people who
have been creatively redesigning their lives in the Third Age, making it
an era of fulfillment. These people have been transforming aging during
their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Instead of following the decrement model of
aging, their lives have moved in new directions with personal growth and
renewal. The author describes the Six Principles of second growth
reported in his last book; he then explains and illustrates key findings
in his next book. All of the people in the latter have been redefining
retirement. Two key ideas emerging from their lives are: Third Age
Careers and Third Age Life Portfolios. While usual retirement has meant
not working, these people have continued working, but have redefined it
to express a new identity and sense of purpose. They have also organized
in life portfolios a complex array of diverse interests – work and
play, family and friends, self-care and community service, and learning.
Lifelong Learning programs are challenged to design experiences that fit
this new view of aging. They can help their Third Age students discover
the potential for second growth and provide a supportive community to
facilitate their development and potential contributions to society and
New Structure in the Life Course
The context for Lifelong Learning programs is changing,
presenting us with both opportunities and challenges that are new in
human development. A change in the structure of the life course has been
emerging as a consequence of rising human life expectancy. And that rise
is one of the most amazing facts in modern history.
During the 20th century most developed nations
experienced a Longevity Revolution. In
the average life expectancy increased from 47.3 in 1900 to 77.5 in 2000.
(Treas, 1995) In personal terms this increase has meant the equivalent
of a 30-year life bonus. If you’ve had higher education and take good
care of yourself, the chance of living to 90 or even 100 is becoming a
realistic possibility. For the first time in history the oldest cohorts
of people have been growing faster than younger cohorts. In the
today there are three million people over 85; in forty years there will
be thirty million. Centenarians are growing even faster. In 1965 there
were 3,000; at 2000 there were 70,000. The
census has forecast that by 2050 there could be over 2 million
centenarians, all of whom are alive now. As my colleague Dr. Wally Bortz
says in one of his books, we should DARE TO BE 100. (Bortz, 1996) We
have an unprecedented gift of life – many more years to live than we
ever dreamed of or prepared for.
major question for individuals, institutions, and societies is: what
will we do with these extra years? If we follow the usual decrement
model of aging, the extra time could be spent experiencing decline,
degeneration, disabilities, debilitation, disease, dependency,
deterioration, and decrepitude -
the dreadful D words that have defined usual aging up until now.
But suppose individuals change course in midlife and insert that bonus
into the middle of their lives, rather than saving it until the end. In
fact we’re already seeing that begin to happen, with some people
experiencing vitality, growth, productivity, and greater satisfaction by
delaying advanced aging with personal skills of growth and renewal. They
enjoy greater longevity often without debilitating disease and
disabilities. People positively changing their lives after fifty are
pushing us to redefine the second half of life and aging. (Sadler, 2004)
we use a Four Age framework to interpret the life course, we see more
clearly a change in structure, with new life options.
First Age. A time for growing up – Preparation
Second Age. A time to establish ourselves – Achievement.
Third Age. A time to change course – Fulfillment.
Fourth Age. A time for integration – Completion.
has already shown how the Fourth Age can be redesigned by Successful
Aging. (Rowe and Kahn, 1998; Baltes, 1990) Until recently the Third Age
has usually denoted a time of retirement. I see it differently, as an
age for fulfillment. This period, from roughly 50 to 75 or 80 years, has
been taking on new dimensions. As I shall show later, it often entails
redefining retirement. In twenty years of research, primarily using
longitudinal studies, I have discovered that the Third Age presents us
with new possibilities in the life course. This discovery is of great
importance to individuals, our society, and lifelong learning programs.
Second Growth in the Third Age
began this research twenty years ago by interviewing about 200 people.
As a student of human development, and having passed 50, I didn’t like
what books and the media were telling me about middle age and aging. I
decided to find out if others were experiencing something different from
the prevailing decrement model. I began to meet some individuals who did
not fit the typical pattern of middle age decline and midlife crisis.
According to the conventional model that was prominent when I began my
research, the life course follows a sigmoid curve, rising to a peak
followed by decline. However, the several dozen people I eventually
chose to study exhibited a different pattern, moving in new directions
often before they reached a peak. They were changing course to move
towards new peaks – not necessarily career peaks but life
peaks. I have called the new trajectory in their life course second
growth, a process of renewal that transforms aging in the Third
Age. What I kept asking was: how to they do it? What is the “secret”
of their unexpected growth? After years of personal interviews,
questioning their experiences, behaviors, and intentions, then
reflecting on the process, and applying a quantitative analysis of data,
I discovered that they were applying six paradoxical principles. My last
book described a twelve year process of individuals, mostly in their
50s. (Sadler, 2000) In the past eight years my co-author, Jim Krefft,
and I have tracking individuals in their 60s and 70s, which is the focus
in our recent book. (Sadler & Krefft, tbp) As they take charge of
their lives to set a new course, we keep seeing these people applying
six principles of growth and renewal.
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