Portrait of an Institution
Portrait of a Concept
Portrait of a Relationship
Portrait of a Developmental Stage
Portrait of a Process
Portrait of a Developmental Stage
[Artist: Tolani Lawrence-Lightfoot (2005)]
I think that part of the reason we who are in our Third Chapters tend to speak of our new learning in “confessional tones”—in tentative, hushed voices that barely veil the excitement and terror we feel inside—is that something in us feels irresponsible, or inappropriate, maybe even unseemly, when we admit our lust for new learning. Somehow, we feel that people our age should be consolidating our experiences, integrating all that we’ve learned and accomplished, and resting on our laurels—not engaging in risk-taking projects, embarking on unmapped adventures, and enduring the awkwardness and vulnerabilities of new mastery. Maybe we even feel that it is somehow undignified to be so childish in our enthusiasms and eagerness to explore new domains of knowledge, recover ancient passions, and try on new roles and costumes.
Our sense of inappropriateness is related, I believe, to deeply ambivalent, shifting societal expectations, institutional norms, and cultural presumptions about the “normal” developmental trajectories of aging. Some of these changing societal expectations are visible and quantifiable, reflecting demographic shifts, increases in educational attainment, and lifestyle changes for people in their Third Chapters. Each generation is living longer than the last one. Better health care, improved diet, more exercise, new medical innovations and interventions, and changes in the routines and rhythms of our work and play allow us to live much longer—stretching the time when we are fortunate enough to be energetic and productive.
U.S. Census statistics from 2000 tell the story of a recent and significant bulge in the population of older Americans who are healthier, better educated, and yearning for a productive and enjoyable alternative to retirement. The arc of life and learning is continually being expanded and redefined. As a matter of fact, demographers who study the shifting patterns tell us that not only are people living longer and thus facing interesting questions related to how to compose their lives, but also that what I am calling the Third Chapter represents a significant and new developmental period in our culture, one that comes along only once in a century. It seems that every hundred years or so a new developmental phenomenon emerges on our cultural horizon. It becomes noticed and named, and entered into the lexicon of our views and rhetoric about human experience.
Last century, we “discovered” and labeled “adolescence” as a distinct developmental period between childhood and adulthood. We began to see it as a time of enormous change, drama, and fluctuation, and as an explanation for new alignments in the strained relationship between parents and their teenagers. During adolescence, powerful peer relationships pull young people away from family expectations, rhythms, and rules and into a world in which parents have little control, access, or understanding. The “work” of adolescence—say developmentalists—is to differentiate, establish some measure of separation from family, and take the initial steps toward independence in the world. This is usually not a smooth or benign process; there is the predictable tumult, drama, awkwardness, and pain as the parent-child relationships are negotiated and redefined. So, last century, the chronological period of adolescence emerged as a cultural construct that was stamped into our psyches and written into the social scripts of our families, schools, and communities.
In the twenty-first century, another phase of life seems to be emerging as significant and distinct, capturing our interest, engaging our curiosity, and expanding our understanding of human potential and development. Demographers talk about this new distinctive chapter in life as characterized by people—between the ages of fifty and seventy-five—who are considered neither “young nor old.” In the Third Chapter, we are beginning to redefine our views about the casualties and opportunities of aging; we are challenging cultural definitions of strength, maturity, power, and sexiness.
Signs of these shifts in our cultural regard and societal expectations have appeared in the media, in popular culture, and in everyday conversation. Helen Mirren stands on the stage, accepting her Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II—her white hair perfectly coiffed and gleaming, her shimmering, low-cut dress exposing a healthy cleavage, her sultry, seductive voice softening her British accent. As she walks up to receive her honor, she is called “hot” by her male presenter. She knows she’s sexy; telling a reporter after the show that if she were offered a role that required a nude scene, she would be more than happy—at sixty—to bare it all. But it is not just movie stars; whole marketing campaigns are designed to court the humanly flawed and give a different face to aging. Dove commercials of older nude women in frontal poses challenge earlier standards of modesty and decorum, openly reveal their sagging bodies, gray hair, and lined faces to audiences still struggling to see and accept the new definition of sexy. Documentaries offer inspiring narratives of Baby Boomers carving out new altruistic careers, and life-insurance commercials depict handsome, bronzed seventy-five year olds fly-fishing, snowboarding, and romping with their grandchildren—capturing the physical prowess and gentleness of confident, mature men.
This is a chapter in life, then, when the traditional norms, rules, and rituals of our careers seem less encompassing and restrictive; when many women and men seem to be embracing new challenges and searching for greater meaning in life. The Boomer generation—once defined by their youthful boldness, achievement, and opportunism—bring to the Third Chapter their wealth and resources and their social capital and sense of authority, as well as their appetite for new adventures and their yearning for inspiration and reinvention.
Even with these marked shifts in societal views and expectations, and in our identities and self-images, however, there is a palpable cultural undertow that continues to regard aging beyond fifty as defined by inevitable decline; by the slow deterioration of mind, body, and spirit. Our culture continues to be youth-obsessed. Beauty and strength, lust and passion, energy and optimism, daring and courage are still seen as embodied by people in their twenties and thirties; and women and men over fifty continue to mourn the ways in which their bodies no longer conform to those youthful ideas, lifting and Botoxing their faces, dyeing and thickening their hair, flattening their butts, reforming their breasts, and working their muscles. All of us—old and young and in between—to some extent still harbor a jaded and static view of life beyond fifty—a depressing image of people slowing down, losing interest, and fading away. It is a picture of disappointment and loss: loss of vitality, curiosity, sexiness, and drive. It is seen as a time for leisure and retreat, not challenge and engagement; a time for resting on our laurels, not meeting new challenges; a time for circling the wagons, not journeying forth. The “golden years” are perceived as anything but golden and lustrous. They do not shimmer with excitement and adventure; they grow rusty with routine. They mark the beginning of a slow decline toward death. In the twenty-first-century culture, then, there continues to be a preoccupation with all things youthful, and a prejudice—however veiled—against the symbols and signs of aging.
These contrasting, contrary images of aging express a profound cultural ambivalence, one that leads to oppositional attitudes, mixed metaphors, confusing imagery, and ambiguous societal signals about what is developmentally appropriate for us, about what is possible and achievable, and about what our dreams should be made of. And I believe that the confessional tomes we use—our hushed disclosures of new adventures in learning that we would prefer to scream from the mountaintops—reflect our wary response to this cultural ambivalence.
This portrait offers a strong counterpoint to the murky ambivalence that shrouds our clear view of people in their Third Chapters. It challenges the still-prevailing and anachronistic images of aging by documenting and revealing the ways in which the years between fifty and seventy-five may, in fact, be the most transformative and generative time in our lives; it traces the ways in which wisdom, experience, and new learning inspire individual growth and cultural transformation. The women and men whose voices fill these pages tell passionate and poignant stories of risk and vulnerability, failure and resilience, challenge and mastery, experimentation and improvisation, and insight and new learning. Finally, this book explores the public benefits, the ways in which new learning in the Third Chapter—both individual and collective—might begin to reshape our culture’s understanding of education, wisdom, productivity, and even work.