CHANGING LIFE OPTIONS:

UNCOVERING THE RICHES OF THE THIRD AGE

 (Published in the inaugural edition of The LLI Review, Spring, 2006)

William A. Sadler, Ph.D.

Professor of Sociology and Business

Holy Names University     ( Oakland , CA

and

Director of Research, Center for Third Age Leadership   

            The 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 the future.-  

A 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 United States 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 United States 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 US 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.

A 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)

If we use a Four Age framework to interpret the life course, we see more clearly a change in structure, with new life options.

  • The First Age. A time for growing up – Preparation

  • The Second Age. A time to establish ourselves – Achievement.

  • The Third Age. A time to change course – Fulfillment.

  • The Fourth Age. A time for integration – Completion.

Research 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.

Discovering Second Growth in the Third Age

 I 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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© 2006 Willam Sadler - all rights reserved.

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