Harriette Lowenstein, MA, LMFT
In times past, we measured significant life events by the age most people experienced them. Graduation, first job, marriage, first child, empty nest, retirement, widowhood and finally death. All of these milestones happened at fairly predictable ages from 18 through 80 or so. But times have changed drastically in the last quarter century, and using chronological age as markers for life stages is no longer relevant.
Adolescence now extends into the late twenties, middle age happens somewhere in the fifties, and old age is more a state of mind than a physical reality.
While previous generations graduated from college, if they went, settled into careers, had children and bought their first home during their twenties. Today this decade is a time of prolonged adolescence. Some in this age group still live with their parents and remain happily single.
The thirties mark the initiation to adulthood and thirty-somethings are generally preoccupied with crafting a public self that will spotlight their talents and win approval and success. During this stage, what matters are external measurements – the job or career, buying a home and nice car, accomplishments of the children – which become showcases for proving worth. Difficulties may arise when these outward measurements don’t jibe with the truth of who we are.
According to Gail Sheehy, author of New Passages, early in life baby boomers got used to having two things: choice and control. Consequently, when things get rough, “people in their forties are likely to feel more out of control than ever.”
Both men and women encounter complications that come with changing bodies. While women experience perimenopause, men may face their own version of physical breakdown. It’s not unusual for men to experience diminished virility and vitality.
During this life stage, women may struggle with late child rearing or mourn their lack of children, and couples may be forced to renegotiate traditional relationships. Mortality is an issue to be reckoned with. This is the time when inevitable questions of values and lifestyle must be responded to.
For women on the other side of menopause, the call to adventure may be heeded. Many feel motivated to learn new skills, dive into new careers, and explore their creativity. Meanwhile, men over 45 are becoming the new at-risk population for significant problems with anxiety and depression.
Sheehy’s research indicates that the major influence on the sense of well-being for women in their fifties is not money or social class or marital status: the most decisive factor is age. “Older is happier.” The same doesn’t appear to be true for men, who tend to experience more uncertainty in midlife than women.
Studies at the University of California at Berkeley indicate that men and women who emerge psychologically healthiest at 50 are those who “shape a new self that calls upon qualities that were dormant earlier.” In other words, the passage into the fifties can be made more positive by finding your passion and pursuing it.
The sixties are the time to make the choice between passive aging and what gerontologists call “successful” aging. Successful aging is making a conscious commitment to self-education and developing a new set of strategies. Resilience and an ability to respond to life’s conflicts without blaming or bitterness are qualities that serve those in this life stage.
The comfort of mature love and a continued excitement about life both factor into a sense of well-being. For those who compartmentalized their nurturing selves and achieving selves earlier in life, grandparenthood can offer a rich second chance to bring both into harmony.
To fare well during the seventies, let go of what doesn’t matter and focus on a few fine-tuned priorities. Those who thrive live in the present but always have plans for the future.
Rather than focusing on time running out, this life stage is a call to live in the moment. Accept that which cannot be changed. Loss is inevitable, but so is gain. The sixties, seventies, and beyond are times of spiritual growth.
The map of adult life keeps changing as surely as the map of the world has continued to shift throughout the ages. As Deepak Chopra suggests, the healthiest way to find our way is by accepting life “not as a series of random events but as a path of awakening.”
Harriette Lowenstein, MA, LMFT is a Life and Relationship Coach in Ventura, Ca. Harriette is committed to helping people who are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and unappreciated in their life and relationships develop strategies to live their lives with intention, power, and purpose. She offers both group and individual coaching by phone and in-person. You may reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.