by Richard Leider
The life course has changed dramatically during the past century. The UN calls this sea change an "agequake!" The reality is that in about 25 years we're going to be experiencing an international transformation where the number of older persons in the world will exceed the number of young for the first time in history. This "agequake" will shake up our social customs and our economies.
While this is going on largely unnoticed, many of us are coming to terms with the realities of our own lives at midlife and beyond. We are noticing the inner voices-- "voices from other rooms," as writer Truman Capote aptly called them--that are trying to awaken us to the positive possibilities in the second half of life. Just 30 years ago, the standard view of aging was confined to D words: decline, disease and dependency. But "the times they are a changing." My observations and experiences have shown that people are now using or yearning for the R words: renewal, redirection and reinvention.
In our book, Something To Live For: Finding your Way in the Second Half of Life, David Shapiro and I focus on people who are pioneers on the frontiers of reinventing the reality of aging. These pioneers are showing us both the possibilities and the challenges of a new period of midlife. This new period is a 20-year space between midlife and real old age. It's a time when we're no longer young, but won't be elderly for some time.
The biggest challenge presented by this new stage lies in listening to a new "positive aging" story-- listening to the "voices from other rooms." The process of reinvention in midlife involves a yearning to become more wholehearted and authentic than we, perhaps, ever allowed ourselves to be before. These voices from other rooms speak even more loudly to us now. Some of us attempt to silence the voices by filling the room in which we live with distractions and endless busyness to drown them out. New technology encourages us to be available 24/7 via laptops, e-mails, PDA's, and Blackberries before, during, and after work, on weekends, and during vacations. For more and more of us being connected never truly ends. We're always "on." So what suffers? Reflection. In particular, our spirit. By midlife, the constant running has caused us to become fugitives from ourselves.
Such a a silencing strategy rarely works, for if the voices are not heard and acknowledged, at some point we become exhausted, even burned out. The unheard voices or unlived lives carry the potential to destroy our happiness and health in the second half. So we ought to welcome those voices, scary though they may be. We must realize that the liberation that our reinventions will set into motion is less to be feared than to be welcomed, because it frees our creative potential for new vitality. It allows us the space to find new purpose and passion inside ourselves. In contrast to the conventional views of older adults, it opens us "up" to learn about alternative models of positive aging.
In December 2007, I had the privilege of speaking to the First National Positive Aging Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. Sponsored by AARP and other organizations, it brought together several hundred professionals and researchers to explore new models for aging well. Like many baby boomers, the attendees were increasingly rejecting the conventional story of retirement, which has meant not working. With the longevity revolution and subsequent agequakes, conventional retirement is simply less relevant. The presenters on positive aging often redefined retirement as a graduation or a commencement to something new and different--and that includes new ways to work.
Those of us engaged in second half of life programming and research are learning about the plethora of different options available after the age of 50. You can learn more about these options by attending the Second Annual Positive Aging Conference, November 12, 2008, at the University of Minnesota. Sponsored by the Center for Spirituality and Healing you can discover more information: www.csh.umn.edu
In addition to many people living much longer, some have begun to transform the story and process of aging itself. What does it mean to be old today? How can we reinvent ourselves for the second half? How can we continue to produce the income and financial security needed to sustain us while we are in the process of reinvention?