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The Author Speaks

Seizing Your Future

Interview with Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom


— Courtesy of Joanna Eldredge Morrisey/Knopf Publicity

Most of us are destined to live longer, healthier lives than our parents. But what will this mean, both for society and for individuals?

In her latest book, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, Mary Catherine Bateson joins the conversation about the impact of improved health and longevity on marriage, childbearing, education, work and retirement. "We have changed the shape and meaning of a lifetime in ways we do not yet fully understand," writes Bateson, a visiting scholar at the Center on Aging and Work/Workplace Flexibility at Boston College. (Read an excerpt from Composing a Further Life.)

A Harvard-educated linguist, anthropologist and Middle East specialist, Bateson, 70, is the daughter of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and a disciple of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. In her 1989 book Composing a Life, she sketched the discontinuities that defined women's lives in a generation informed by feminism. Over the past six years, she has focused on boomers of both sexes and their elders—those experiencing the phase that she calls "Adulthood II." This is the period of relatively robust health that precedes the onset of frail old age in what she describes as "the first four-generation society in history."

Bateson's subjects include a suburban San Francisco gay couple, a boat repairman-turned-jewelry maker, a retired Episcopal dean, a scientist colleague who found happiness in his third marriage, and the redoubtable Jane Fonda, estranged from her ex-husband Ted Turner by her growing spirituality. Through these stories, and her own, Bateson evokes the challenges and possible rewards of this ongoing social transformation. "Aging today," she writes, "has become an improvisational art form calling for imagination and willingness to learn. … To know what they will need and what they need to offer, both men and women must explore who they are."

AARP Bulletin spoke to Bateson about her ideas.

Q. What motivated you to write this book?

A. I and many other people were living with a conception of the life cycle that was obsolete. When I was living in Iran, a colleague who had worked overseas all her professional life retired at 65, went home and looked after her mother. It didn't occur to me that people had mothers alive when they were 65. It was one of those moments when you realize that something that you had taken for granted is not true.

Q. Why has it been important to you to use the real names of your subjects?

A. Because I'm interested in the uniqueness of the people I'm writing about. Very often in the social sciences when you replace the real name with an artificial one, you have to smooth out all sorts of details in people's lives so they won't be identifiable. Imagine if you take a painting by Picasso and disguise it so no one will know it was by Picasso. You'd lose.

Q. What are the characteristics and parameters of what you call Adulthood II?

A. It begins when you come to a transitional point in your life where you have the feeling a chapter is coming to an end. It could be children growing up and leaving home. It could be the completing of a major task you devoted yourself to. It could be retirement—but retirement doesn't always happen in the same way. It ends when, for reasons of health, whatever one was doing in Adulthood II is no longer doable.

Q. How do you define "active wisdom," and why do you associate this trait with this period?

A. Wisdom has traditionally been associated with old age. What we have now are people who are healthy and energetic and have probably had more diverse experience than previous generations. Whatever wisdom they have gleaned, they both act on it and they pass it on.

Q. Can you offer an example from the book?

A. Ruth, a trained social worker, found herself interfering in people's lives in helpful ways without a clear sense of purpose. At this point, one of the things she says to other people is, "Think about what you're trying to achieve—don't just do it because it sounds good." We're in such a rush in this society. We're making decisions all the time where we don't think a few steps ahead.

Q. Is Adulthood II different for men and women?

A. There are important differences. Many men are still taking for granted that what they want to do is retire and then relax. They're caught in the previous model. I don't want to overstate this, but many women think of work as something they wanted to do, not something they had to do. The second difference is that most women have more than one job—the double shift. The loss of purpose that sometimes affects men when they retire, or when they lose their jobs, is much more of a problem than it is for women, who continue to have their roles as wives, as mothers, as homemakers.

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