Skip to content

Seizing Your Future

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

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.

Q. The Jane Fonda interview is fascinating, but don't her wealth and celebrity make her atypical?

A. Everybody's life is atypical. What her wealth gives her is choices, but it doesn't tell her how to make those choices. When I wrote Composing a Life, one of the valid comments people made was that none of the women had had to deal with extreme poverty or physical disability. What I was trying to study was the choices that women were making when they had the possibility of making choices. Resources make a difference, but you still have to figure out, "What am I going to do with my money? What am I going to do with my fame? How am I going to invest my time and my passion?"

Q. For Fonda and others, Adulthood II seems to be a time of renewed spirituality.

A. My sense is that we are so busy in our adult years that people don't have time for reflection. Wisdom comes from reflecting on experience. Reflection on what one cares about, on what gives meaning to life, leads many people in the direction of very different forms of spirituality.

Q. What is the most important conclusion you drew from the interviews?

A. All of the people I spoke to had grown and deepened by living these extra years. And by the way they engaged with other people and with the society, they became more deeply human.

Q. What surprised you?

A. I hadn't really thought through the fact that the learning that takes place in people's lives is very often learning of an ethical kind. It's a learning of compassion, of caring for other people, of taking responsibility.

Q. What societal changes would you like to see to enhance the extended life cycle?

A. I would like to see more changes that would encourage and support the contribution that people can make to society in Adulthood II. First of all, it's good for our health to be engaged and busy and making a contribution. It is good for society to have the benefit of the experience and reflection of people in Adulthood II.

Q. What are some of the challenges involved?

A. There are structural problems that need to be solved. We as a society, since the feminist movement, have suffered a deficit of volunteerism. What I would hope to see is a rethinking of the value of work in people's lives. We have inherited the notion of work as a burden, as a curse. What needs to happen is a labor movement that emphasizes issues around the meaningfulness of work.

Q. What else?

A. We need to rethink education. With No Child Left Behind [a federal law enacted in 2001], we're saying there's a certain minimum that everyone has to know, and we're willing to make acquiring that minimum fairly unpleasant. A good education turns out lifelong learners. If you look at an infant or toddler, what you see is a creature who's programmed to learn and gets a kick out of it all the time. And then we discourage that.

Q. You stress the importance of interdependence. How has American individualism adversely affected our life choices and social arrangements?

A. First of all, the issue of sustainability: Everyone has to have his own car, his own big house, his own lawn mower. This ideal of independence is leading people to regard any kind of communal living, whether with family or in a community where people look out for each other, as undesirable. I think one of the reasons that being involved in volunteer work is helpful for older people is they're more willing to accept help at a later stage when they need it.

Q. What advice would you give readers entering Adulthood II?

A. People come upon retirement without a very good plan for what they're going to do next. They think that what they're going to do is relax, without realizing that full-time recreation isn't going to be satisfying to them. So you really need a time to say, "What is fundamental to me, and how can I have that in the years ahead?"

Q. Final thoughts?

A. I've been concerned that we are making decisions of great significance for the future of the whole planet for short-term reasons. We have to engage older adults who have a lot of life experience in reaching those decisions. The trouble is, politicians seem to think that older adults are only interested in their own entitlements. AARP has done a heroic job working toward legislation and policies whose effect is to give older adults the freedom and security to speak up and make the contributions to society that we need them to make. The most critical contribution we can make is to become advocates for the future. One way of thinking about that is, "What kind of world will our grandchildren live in?" It's a different kind of activism.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor for Columbia Journalism Review who is facing Adulthood II.