Starting Older: Understanding and Making the Most of a New Life Phase

“What do I do now?” This question hits with a thud just a few times in our lives. Leaving college for the “real world”, after a divorce or when the nest empties, and again with ferocity when one is facing entering a phase of life between mature adulthood and old age.

This phase of life involves profound shifts in relation to yourself, your work, your family, and your engagement in the world. As I thought about it more, realized that as important as it is, it didn’t have a name! I decided to call it “Starting Older”. It’s past “the prime of life” and past late middle age, but it is not equivalent to “retirement” or elderhood.

If you’re entering this new life phase now and have spent your life in business or the professions, look back ten years. A decade ago you were at the peak of your career–running a business, a department, or an organization, or churning out articles. But now, you’ve been in your career for 30 or 35 years. Your professional life has been, one hopes, very satisfying, and should be a great source of pride and accomplishment. But for many it no longer feels new or fresh. Sometimes you feel like you’re on autopilot, or you’re not quite exactly as sharp as you used to be. Attrition through retirement and death is gradually thinning your business network. Being great at what you do no longer feels like enough or, sometimes, even important. You’ve already mentored a younger generation, in your 50s and early 60s. You really don’t want to mentor that much anymore. Maybe, secretly, you don’t especially want to give, or produce, or join or engage. At least not in the same ways you’ve always done.

In business, getting on top of the challenges and subtleties of this phase of life can be essential in preventing disastrous missteps relating to succession and timing of “exits” or poor judgment about when or whether to sell a business. In family businesses, generational conflict can fester or erupt when those who are facing “starting older” can’t actually face it.

Working with clients in my consulting practice who are “starting older” is an exciting enterprise for both of us. This time of life is a chance to pick up threads of your self that you’ve dropped along the way. It’s an opportunity to gently shed or refuse commitments that meet others’ needs but not your own, at least not any more. It provides radical possibilities for being really free, productive in new ways, and even to re-invent yourself.

This new state of life, though no less impactful than the mid-life crisis, is quiet and often subtle, though new awareness can hit like a flash of light. Still, it tends to inspire contemplation, not revolution.

Subjectively, it does not feel like the beginning of old age. It begins about age 65, or a few years before. It ends when serious aging becomes more of an issue, in one’s late 70’s or 80’s most commonly. You feel creative and productive, but for a variety of internal and external reasons, just continuing to do what you’ve been doing since you were in your 40’s and 50’s doesn’t make sense any more. So what do you do now?

You’ve just passed the peak of an arc. Energy and vision drive it upward through your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. In your 50’s you might realize you’ve accomplished everything you set out to (noticing that with some surprise) and it feels good. A decade later, the pitch of stimulation is gone.

There is little guidance for those of us hitting this new life phase. It’s not well-defined or characterized in the psychological or sociological literature[ Or the literature on family business]. There’s a good reason for the lack of definition and consideration of this life phase. For most people, it didn’t really exist before. Living longer and living longer healthy and active have literally created a new stage of life.

I’ve written an article (posted on this website) that I hope will be the germ of a book on this important and intriguing subject. Thousands of words and dozens of books have already been written on aging baby boomers, and how their “retirement” and aging will be unlike previous generations. But I don’t think the psychological and subjective aspects of this new version of aging has been adequately explored or understood. In my article and the book to come, I describe aspects of the personal, subjective experience: a turning inward, a need for change, and a new experience of time.

There’s a negative side to the life phase “starting older” including coping with loss of power and influence and facing the need to make room for a new generation without feeling injured or undone and grieving for . A person who has not acknowledged that he or she is facing a very different stage of life and who has not had a period of reflection and preparation can experience this new time in life as if they are facing a terrifying black void.

Because it is a “new” phase of life not often experienced by previous generations, there is no established roadmap for living it with intelligence and freedom. In my article I sketch out some key components that contribute to making this time of life most satisfying: the need to face reality with clarity and courage (and avoid denial), the need to seek novelty and pursue creativity; the importance of increasing freedom, the satisfaction of identifying and fulfilling abandoned dreams and talents, and committing to doing only what is most essential.

I’d love to hear your reactions to my thinking on this subject—especially if you are one of the hundreds of thousands of people who are now “starting older”. You can read my article here.

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