Jan. 7, 2014 at 8:39 AM ET
Jane Pauley seeks to dispel the misconceptions and mythology about midlife and everything that comes after in "Your Life Calling." Here's an excerpt.
Introduction: Moment of Impact
My friend Meg was successfully treated for thyroid cancer in her thirties, but for the next ten years she faced every annual checkup braced for bad news. When she arrived for lunch after her latest visit to the doctor, she was wearing such a worried expression we were prepared for the worst. But here’s what her doctor had said: “Meg, I think you’ve dodged a bullet. I don’t think that cancer is coming back.” Good news! And yet the look on her face was not joy or even relief.
I think Meg had been living year to year. Now, suddenly facing the prospect that she might go on living a long time, she felt completely unprepared. This is what she said: “What am I going to do for forty years?”
It’s the question of the age—and the question of our age. My generation is the first to get a heads-up that, as one expert puts it, “our working lives could well be exceeded by the years we go on living.” But what are we going to do? The demographics of aging have been improving, adding decades to what we commonly know as “midlife,” but as Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, says, “The culture hasn’t had time to catch up. The enormity of this hasn’t hit people.” It’s starting to. At lunch that day with Meg I witnessed a moment of impact.
Everyone is talking about reinvention. The president used the word “reinvention” nine times in a State of the Union address.The Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to reinvention. Something profound is happening. But as a woman in my AARP online chat room aptly put it, “I’m ready to reinvent myself. Any ideas about what I should reinvent myself into? Nothing is lining up in front of me.” It’s a common sentiment. I often hear it described as a yearning for something “more.” It’s afeeling I could personally relate to—being ready for something,but a something you can’t quite define. Our vocabulary hasn’t caught up.
What does midlife mean? It used to be the beginning of along glide path into retirement, which many of us still eagerly look forward to. As I write, the morning paper reports that 2 million of us will be retiring in the coming year. Maybe you will be one of those newly minted “retirees.” But since you are reading this book, you’ve probably decided your retirement will be different. Unlike previous generations, who retired from something, my generation hopes to retire to something else. Midlife keeps on going and going. Even before the economy went into recession, the majority of baby boomers surveyed by AARP reported they expected to keep on working in retirement, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not. “Retirement”is a word with new meaning—no longer a door marked exit.Think instead of a door that swings on a hinge, moving us forward into something new.
Marc Freedman of Encore.org, which helps people pursue second acts for the greater good, says we’ve been blessed with a“bonus decade or two or three.” We still have options. I have met dozens of people who’ve already been there and done it in Your Life Calling (now Life Reimagined Today), the series produced for the Today show with my partners at AARP. This is a booming demographic. And the Gen Xers are not far behind—they start turning fifty in 2014.
I’ve been thinking and talking about reinvention for many years. Born in 1950, I’m on the leading edge of the baby boom,and I’ve had a peek over the horizon. The future looks pretty good.
Not long ago, two sixty-something women filled a sold-out auditorium at my alma mater, Indiana University (class of ’72). The evening was billed as “A Conversation with Meryl Streep.”I would be asking the questions. The highlight was when Meryl asked and answered her own question, eliciting a gasp from the audience of 3,500 people:
“When Bette Davis starred in All About Eve, a movie about away-over-the-hill actress, how old do you think she was?”
She paused a moment before she said, “Forty!” Then she let that sink in, and brushing her hair back like she does, said in her offhanded way, “So . . . it’s really a different world.” It really is.
Midlife is different than it used to be. For many it will be much longer, but demographers don’t merely talk about longer life expectancy, they also talk about longer health expectancy. People living longer and staying healthy longer is a powerful combination.
And there’s more. A few years ago researchers made an unexpected discovery that, around the age of forty, people begin to experience feelings of dissatisfaction and a diminished sense of well-being. They were surprised to find this in men and women, rich and poor and all over the world. But the bigger surprise was the rebound effect. At around the age of fifty, feelings of well-being begin to rise again—and keep on rising, well into the seventies. In the twenty-first century, fifty is the beginning of a new and aspirational time of life.
Richard Luker is a social psychologist sometimes called the father of sports research. He created the influential ESPN SportsPoll twenty years ago. He’s probably the foremost expert on how Americans spend their leisure time and money. “People who are now in their fifties are far more vital in their outlook than people in their fifties were even ten years ago,” he says. “Just now since 2007 these adults are saying, ‘not only do I see a more vigorous life, I’m up for it, I’m game, I want to do more.’ Our research is bearing that out in spades.”
We have all known inspiring individuals who have defied the stereotypes of aging to lead long, creative, and productive lives, but until now that was perceived as the exception. As I read in The Washington Post, “Not long ago, workers in their forties were closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. ”Today men and women in their forties can reasonably be thinking about beginning a new career, or something new that’s not a career. We are the first generation to get a heads-up that not only is there more to come, but maybe even the best of all.
You may be surprised to know that people over fifty-five represent the largest age group of owners of new business start-ups. At an age when our own parents and grandparents expected to wind things down, people are getting a second wind.
The Stanford longevity expert, Laura Carstensen, notes that with our new vitality come some pretty big questions. She says, “Those of us living today have been handed a remarkable gift with no strings attached—an extra thirty years of life for the average person. Now that gift is forcing us to answer a uniquely twenty-first-century question—what are we going to do with our supersized lives?”
I don’t fashion myself an authority, though as a journalist and storyteller I have long recognized the power of other people’s stories to help us to see our own lives in new ways. Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life is neither a “must do” nor a “how to.” But I do hope to challenge some misconceptions you may have about reinvention:
I’ll endorse a couple of counterintuitive ideas:
So, this book is filled with stories and not much advice, but I hope you’ll find ideas and inspiration in abundance. Perhaps one story will speak to a yearning or discontent you may be familiar with; another may help focus your rising sense of optimism and well-being. Maybe you’ll be energized to take a bold first step, or decide to take a step back and reflect.
There will be times when you should pause and listen. The future will be longer than you think. And yet the future is probably closer than you expect. Contradictions abound! It’s been my personal observation that if there’s a secret to reinvention, it’s that there isn’t one, or rather, there isn’t only one. There areas many ways to do it as there are experts eager to guide us. As Bertolt Brecht put it, “The shortest line between two points can be a crooked line.” For the lucky few, here’s a chance to reach toward a long-nurtured dream. For many, the way forward may feel like groping in the dark, as it did for me. Frankly, we are all making it up as we go along. But how reassuring to know we’re all in this together.
Text copyright © 2013 by Jane Pauley. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.