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The Author Speaks

Interview With Marc Freedman on the Midlife Crisis

'The Big Shift' argues for a new life stage

Q. Outliving your usefulness at age 60? It's absurd, really.

A. It is absurd. Last summer I gave testimony to the Senate Finance Committee. I'd just read an article by an economist saying the working-age population was defined as ages 15 to 59, and I'm looking around this panel of senators, and I realize there wasn't a single one of them that qualified as being working age. Everywhere you look you see these contradictions and oxymorons.

Q. Speaking of which: What do you mean when you say the midlife crisis might be more of a chasm than a crisis?

A. We have a dramatic sense in this country of the midlife crisis — that it means a reckless affair, a red sports car, a dramatic life upheaval — but the much more prevalent problem is that people are hitting their middle years realizing the work they've been doing has run its course and they're ready for something new. But getting from "what's left" to "what's next" is a daunting prospect, with very little help available. And I think many people feel that they're stuck between clinging to the familiar even if it's lost its appeal, or entering the abyss, which can be a terrifying prospect.

Q. And expensive.

A. Yes. The cost of transitioning to a new period of life — which might mean getting additional education, doing an internship, taking a sabbatical — is significant. There was an article in Time recently about baby boomers going to divinity school, and it had the story of a pediatric nurse who became an Episcopal priest — it cost her $100,000; she had to sell her house and her car to do it. There's a need to do a better job helping people save for this transition. The idea of having this big balloon payment of leisure at the end of life and trying to save for that is going to make sense for some people, but a lot of us would rather take at least half of that and distribute it across the life course so we have more opportunity for renewal and education.

Q. Explain what you mean by "posterity deficit."

A. Mary Catherine Bateson has this great line: "We're living longer and thinking shorter." As a society, we've become increasingly preoccupied with short-term profits, short-term benefits, short-term thinking. And now we're beginning to see the consequences. There was a wave of boomer commencement addresses a couple of years ago, in which the essential message was: "We're sorry. We're sorry that we're going to be the first generation to leave the world worse off than we found it." And the sequestering of older Americans is part of that problem. When you send people off to live in age-segregated villages to live a second childhood, you're essentially squandering what Erik Erikson called "generativity" — the natural impulse people have in late life to give back to future generations. When Erikson was close to death, he said the great sadness he felt was that we had lost a sense of future-mindedness as a country.

Next: Changing careers at 55 versus 25. >>

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