En español |The first time Marc Freedman used his AARP card, he was a 50-year-old with two small children, and it felt so weird he wondered whether the hotel clerk was going to accuse him of fraud. He survived the shock, but as he progressed further into his 50s, he noticed that he and his friends were struggling with a similar problem — a sense that one era of life was ending and another was beginning, and none of the traditional categories seemed to fit.
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The irony is that Freedman, of all people, should have seen it coming. In his 30s he started Civic Ventures, an organization dedicated to helping people over 50 move into more meaningful work, and he's long been concerned about the mismatch between America's changing demographics and its static conceptions of life stages. When the modern idea of the "golden years" of retirement was created in the mid-20th century, average life expectancy was barely over 65, and those who lived beyond it were often not fit to keep working. But now average life expectancy is nearing 80, and many people approaching retirement age find that they're not ready to step aside.
As Freedman points out in his new book, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife, our life stages — childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, midlife, old age — are not just reflections of life's natural seasons; they are social constructions that shape how we think about our lives. And as our social realities change, sometimes these categories fail to keep pace.
Freedman spoke with the AARP Bulletin about this problem, and what might be done about it.
Q. You say life stages don't just emerge, they're created. Why do we have to create life stages in the first place?
A. We do it to make society work better. We invent stages when a problem has developed with the people who are in a particular period. So we created adolescence when there were a lot of young people who needed the opportunity to mature before entering the adult world. We created retirement at a juncture when older people were seen as pitiable — too old to work, too young to die — and they needed a category to better serve their needs. And that's why we're going to need to create a category between midlife and old age.
Q. How does this actually happen?
A. In many ways it comes down to making a virtue of necessity. We are going to be a much older nation than we were. Large numbers of people are flooding into a period of life where they face confused identity, mismatched institutions and incoherent public policies. And we'll change because the existing arrangement no longer works. The idea of the 30-year retirement is simply unsustainable. Who can afford to retire for 30 years, and what society can afford to write off the most experienced quarter of its population when they still have so much left to contribute?