The 21st century’s demographic shift, and gift, is that longer lives (despite the blip of lifespan drop due mostly to coronavirus) are now the norm. Our default thinking causes people to think we are older and infirm for many of those additional years. The additional decades we’ve added over the course of the last century, however, have not translated into infirmity. Rather, the middle of life has expanded, and we’ve not made sense of that yet.
It’s about time we upgraded our cultural narrative about midlife. It is not the beginning of an “over the hill” downward slope; if you cultivate the elements required, it may just be the prime of your life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans living into their nineties is expected to quadruple by 2050—so if you are 45, you may have half your life ahead of you.
In a recent newsletter, I discussed how to live and lead to 100. Given medical advances, the reality is not so much a “why would I want to live to 100” or even a “how” question. Instead, we face more of an existential matter: what will I do with this gift of years?
This is the fundamental challenge, the core question and an opportunity for Middlescents:
How can you cultivate your energy and use your life experience to prepare for your best decades yet?
One common hindrance was well described by Arthur Brooks as “the striver’s curse” in his recent book, Strength to Strength. According to Brooks, people who have achieved success often view (what they perceive as) their inevitable age-related decline as terrifying. I’ve seen this pattern borne out repeatedly with clients; valuing material success and positions of power more than anything else is a recipe for end-of-life regret that begins in midlife.
What, then, is the remedy for this strivers’ curse? For me, it has been admitting to myself that while I’ve accomplished many of my work-related goals, I’ve been unfair to myself. I keep adding more outrageous goals to my list, to the point where they have begun to feel more like striving than thriving. But it has taken me a while to admit that to myself. It’s been hard, but I’ve been letting go of the add-on goals that once gave me energy but have come to feel like a yoke I’m ready to throw off.
I’m drawn to spending my time and energy doing the work I love without the pressure of setting new and out-of-the-ballpark goals that I somehow always met. I’m drawn to create more spaciousness for time with friends, family, colleagues, and commitments that bring me joy. I know this is an important foundation for my future health and wellness. The research backs me up. According to a landmark longitudinal adult development study initiated by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. George Vaillant and continued under the direction of Dr. Robert J. Waldinger, the strength of one’s relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction. The study followed a cohort of people spanning 60 years, and the results showed that the key to health and satisfaction at age 80 is having rewarding personal relationships. Or, as Vaillant said of the study’s findings: “Happiness is love and relationships. Full stop.”
“When we gathered together everything, we knew about them (study participants) about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they would grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationship. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Old Rules No Longer Apply
The rules have changed, and old rules no longer apply. The new rules reframe life stages from a script that went like this: go to school, find a job, have a family, work hard, retire—cue the rocking chair to a recognition that a chronological number no longer defines how we are living our lives. With three additional decades of life expectancy added to the picture, the midlife stage has expanded to encompass more years of vitality, more chapters. So rather than reaching for the rocking chair, the new “old” rules question is, “dare I rock the boat?”
Is it too late to change careers, priorities, and habits, and adopt new roles with a renewed purpose? The answer is no.
The new rule holds that every life stage, every age, has value, potential and opportunity.
I love how Ram Dass put it:
“…How can we, as aging people, make our wisdom felt in the world? By embodying wisdom. We can find a happy balance between participation and retreat, remembering that it is our duty to be of service if possible.”
The reckonings happening in and around us are causing seismic shifts in how we think about so many things, and as outlined above, it has accelerated the cultural conversation that I’ve been focused on my entire career–how to embrace and cultivate wisdom, joy, and impact. I’ve doubled down on the term Middlescence to describe this new stage of life, one that considers the demographic realities of our evolving world and rejects the toxic norms of the “old rules.”
The possibility for longer, healthier, more impactful lives is here, thanks to the demographic gift we have been given over the course of the last century. It’s time that stops sidelining our most wise and experienced voices. And hat’s just beginning to happen–it’s undeniably rewarding to find that popular culture and mainstream media—from Helen Mirren gracing the cover of People Magazine’s Beautiful Issue to Atlantic’s The Kind of Smarts You Don’t Find in Young People feature—are finally joining me in this conversation.
We are all asking and trying to answer a question I’ll pose to you:
What will you do with your one wild and precious life?