Mining midlife — or how to cultivate courage

My friend Gary called me recently and sounded really down. He said: “You know Barb, when I was younger and newly married, my hopes and dreams were endless … now I find myself thinking my choices are limited; my story is written.” The most dangerous stories — the insidious age-related, self-limiting stories we tell — are based on old scripts about how we are supposed to look and behave as we age. Alison, a teacher (and a client of mine), recently expressed the irony that as an educator, she has cultivated a solid foundation in youth development, but feels at a total loss when thinking about her own development as an adult.

Alison isn’t alone. As an executive and life coach I’ve worked with hundreds of people who share that sentiment. In fact, if I were a doctor I would diagnose us as suffering from cultura lagosis, a medical term I invented to describe Alison’s condition. Consider these facts: in the United States today there are more than 70,000 centenarians and, according to demographer James Vaupel, half of the babies born in the United States in 2007 had a life expectancy of 104 years. Why do we still act, think and feel that once we are adults we are done developing?

Longevity and Life Trajectory

Our thinking is stuck in the last century, when we followed a consistent life trajectory associated with our chronological age. It went something like this: Go to school. Find a job. Get married. Have children. Work Hard. Retire. That no longer reflects life and work in the 21st century, when more people live into their 80s, 90s and triple digits; when a career with one company is a thing of the past; when people marry later, if at all; when retirement is an anachronism. World Economic Forum member Lynda Gratton, author of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, concurs: “Current life structures, career paths, educational choices and social norms are out of alignment with the emerging reality of longer life spans.”

Our longer, healthier lives have dramatically shifted the dynamic flow of our experiences at home and at work, yet we still feel as though our 40s start the slippery slope to decline. I’ve spent most of my career as a leadership coach for adults who are what I call midlife and better, meaning ages 40 and older — listening to them and supporting them as they strive to make sense of where they are and where they’re going in their lives. I’ve worked with clients struggling to make ends meet and others struggling with how to lead their lives when earning money is no longer the goal; I’ve worked with advocates for social change and victims of ageism in the workplace; I’ve worked with people transitioning careers and others launching and leading multinational companies. Regardless of station in life, those of us in midlife use much of the same language and often express the same feelings of wanting a sense of meaning, looking to figure out how we can feel more energy, stay healthy and have an impact.

Why do we still act, think and feel that once we are adults we are done developing? Our thinking is stuck in the last century, when we followed a consistent life trajectory associated with our chronological age.

We are ready to do so exactly because we are living in a time when we can put our wisdom to work while we take advantage of advances in technology to support our aging bodies. We’ve added more years of living, not dying. We’ve added a new life stage in the middle. We’ve added more years of vitality and engagement, a block of time I refer to as middlescence.

Case in point: I had a total hip replacement 18 months ago and envisioned a couple of ways I could imagine what it might mean for a 53-year-old woman. One: I’m old, my body is falling apart; of course it is — I’m over 50. I have to recognize that everything pretty much slows down from here on in. I have to accept that I just can’t do what I used to. Two: I’ve been active, have arthritis and some parts are wearing out. Thankfully, the technology exists to replace my bum hip and add some titanium in my leg. I’m going have to work harder than I used to so I can be as fit as ever. But it’s worth it — I have decades of being active in front of me; I’m ready to put my years of experience to work and feel like in some ways I’m just getting started.

We’ve added more years of living, not dying. We’ve added a new life stage in the middle. We’ve added more years of vitality and engagement, a block of time I refer to as middlescence.

The way I see it, the years we’ve added to our lives show up as meaningful decades in the middle — not at the end. I’m not the first one to recognize middlescence as a distinct stage. In 1988, former ASA Board member Ken Dychtwald began using the term and related it to the “modern postponement of old age due to extended longevity, and the multiplying numbers of people who were reinventing themselves post-youth …” In 1995, Gail Sheehy wrote about middlescence in her book, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time. But timing is everything and our country was not ready to integrate the language redefining life’s newest stage. Until now.

The Déjà Vu of Life-Stage Creation

Adolescence was once a new life stage, too. Identified and named in 1904 by G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer in the study of children, the term adolescence arose from shifts in our culture from an agrarian society to an industrial one, which allowed for a later transition to adulthood. It’s time we do the same for midlife.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve been testing out my theory about middlescence. What if we integrate middlescence into our vernacular much as we did the word adolescence? What if we define middlescence like this:

middlescence (noun): A transitional period, between the ages of about 45 and 65, marked by an increased desire to find or create greater meaning in one’s life. Often accompanied by physical, social and economic changes, it is a turning point from which adults continue to develop and grow. A life stage created by increased longevity patterns of the 21st century; middlescent (adjective).

Will such a definition help people more accurately see this stage as a challenge, but also one of potential? I’ve been writing, blogging, speaking and sharing this idea and it’s starting to catch on. Some months back, dictionary.com shared middlescence as their word of the day. They used the following definition: “The middle-age period of life, especially when considered a difficult time of self-doubt and readjustment. Origin of middlescence. 1960–1965; blend of middle and adolescence.” This reads as a highly negative definition, so we have work to do — but the fact that they featured the word is a giant step toward integrating it into common usage.

A recent study by Allianz found that nearly 50 percent of the 3,000 respondents felt a longer life expectancy would allow them to take a different view of how and when life choices are made; they responded that they regretted choices made in the past. Naming middlescence is a chance to change our cultural narrative, just as we did a century ago with adolescence. Understanding middlescence as a new life stage means we can edit the mistakes of our younger years and begin to compose new chapters.

The Opportunities of Middlescence

And what of Gary, who struggled with finances and what he saw as the end of possibility? He is doing what so many middlescents do: he is downsizing his home and finding work in the gig economy, while launching a start-up. Understanding that middlescence is a time of change and growth gave Gary the courage to believe in his future.

Understanding middlescence as a new life stage means we can edit the mistakes of our younger years and begin to compose new chapters.

What if we bring our mentality up to date? Midlife was once a “no man’s land” of waiting for retirement. It is now characterized by growth, change and vitality — very different from the way our parents spent their midlife. Just as adolescence signaled a transition to adulthood, Middlescence is a transition to a new stage between adulthood and old age. Helping people to know this new stage, understand its possibilities and embrace its opportunities can only benefit them as individuals, and all of us as a country.

Barbara Waxman, M.S.G., M.P.A., is a gerontologist, speaker and executive/life coach in Marin County, California.

This article was originally published in the July-August 2018 edition of Aging Today, the bimonthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging.

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Barbara Waxman

Barbara Waxman

Resilient Leadership Coach, Middlescence Life Stage Expert, Gerontologist, Speaker, Author