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Interview With Marc Freedman on the Midlife Crisis

'The Big Shift' argues for a new life stage

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.

Man on flying trapeze experiencing Marc Freedman's Big Shift after midlife

Freedman says older adults experience "a big shift" after midlife. — David Madison/Getty Images

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?

Next: Outliving your usefulness at 60? >>

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. >>

Q. Maybe the problem is that we think of the future strictly in terms of youth. What can older people contribute that younger people can't?

A. People moving into the encore years have experience that twentysomethings don't. But they also have fewer years ahead of them — and this has motivational implications. You ask different questions when you realize that the time ahead is finite; your priorities change. And many people now also have enough time and energy to do something with that unique perspective.

Q. Whereas before they might not have.

A. Right. In the past it was almost as if wisdom and experience were wasted on the old. By the time you reached the point where you'd figured things out and were motivated to focus on the most important things in life, you were too worn out to do anything about it. Maybe you could donate a park bench. But people now are in a position to live a legacy.

Q. So it boils down to experience and perspective?

A. No, it's really more than that. It's not just "experience" and "wisdom" that we're losing. We're also losing a vast potential source of creativity in society. There's growing evidence, for instance, that experimental innovators bloom later in life, and by systematically sending so many people to the sidelines, convinced that they're over the hill, we may have been writing off a whole swath of people who are prepared to do their best work.

Q. You tell the story of Meredith, who changes course in her 50s to become an environmental activist, and she says that making a change like that at that age "is like walking the high trapeze without a net." What's the difference between doing something like this at 55 and doing it at 25?

A. Meredith had to downshift in an extreme way to provide herself that net — she moved out of her expansive house and into a garage. At this stage of life, you have more financial obligations, and you also have higher expectations of comfort and security than you did when you were young. It's a more jarring transition.

Q. Which means it's not just a matter of economics, it's also about creating a different set of social expectations. Otherwise, people are all alone in this.

A. That's exactly it. You're without a net economically, especially when it comes to health insurance, mortgages, other obligations. But maybe even more important, you're without a net psychologically. There's an expectation that you work hard through your middle years, then you reach a certain level of achievement and you stay there until you disengage and retire … so to be starting out again at 55 or 60 or 65 requires an enormous amount of resilience and a thick skin.

Q. You write that we need "a whole new set of social institutions, market innovations, enlightened policy, and a revised culture." What do you think most needs to happen?

A. We need a gap year for grown-ups. And it will probably involve the same three elements that young people use in their transition to adulthood: education, internships and service. People need a period of renewal and exploration; they need time to develop new skills and explore possibilities. And they need to be able to do it without sneaking in the back door via internships meant for young people or raiding their children's college funds.

Glenn Hodges lives in Colorado.

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