Life After 60: The New Reality
Today, turning 60 is something altogether different, less about sticking with what you've been doing or congratulating yourself for making it this far and more about taking on a new career or passion -- or revisiting one that got lost along the way.
Those are some of the observations of Bruce Frankel, who profiles 13 people who reinvented themselves after age 60 in his book, What Should I Do With The Rest Of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life.
Hitting the big 6-0 comes with its own set of challenges -- and opportunities -- for fresh starts. Frankel, a former newspaper and magazine writer in New York City who just turned 60 himself, talks about the new realities of growing older and the importance of not being hung up on numbers.
SA: What traits do individuals in the book share that helped them transition to something new in late middle age?
BF: I'm hesitant to suggest universal prescriptions because each individual faced a unique history and circumstances. That said, they were bitten by a need to create a new or long-dreamed identity or to reconstitute an older, unrealized one. They were willing to let go of regret and rumination over loss and adversity to pursue curiosity and first steps. They established goals based on intrinsic values and a vision of themselves achieving what was previously unrealized. They allowed their passions to grow. They embraced the idea of making the brain sweat. They kept themselves trim with proper diet and lots of physical activity.
SA: What surprised you about people over 60?
BF: What surprised me most was that they rarely referenced their own ages. They were more focused on what they were going to do next, how they were going to improve upon what they had done, what they were dreaming up. I continue to be surprised by how agile of mind and body they were, how intellectually challenging, how resourceful and how determined they are to make a difference in ways we often more associate with young adults. I'm also surprised by how they radically reshaped my own timeline. I am now 60, but no longer consider it a significant threshold.
SA: Is that a reflection of the times?
BF: These people tended to be a generation ahead of boomers. I think it will become even truer as boomers age that people won't see it as a triumph to have passed 60. Also, they're not living in the past or with regret. They all suffered in their lives the loss of children, spouses, jobs, income, diseases, really everything you can think of. But they don't dwell on it, and that's the hallmark of how people succeed and really flourish.
SA: What's different about turning 60 today from 10 or 20 years ago?
BF: This is a difficult moment because of the collision of altered expectations and readiness to live more fulfilling and productive later lives and the cruel effects of the recession. Putting aside the economy for a moment, people do not advance into their early 60s with an expectation of complete retirement and resignation of all ambition. Turning 60 is now seen as the time to repurpose our lives, to refire ourselves intellectually, socially and physically. I admire Marc Freedman for his efforts to encourage society to create structures to facilitate socially responsible encore lives, so people can not only continue to be vital for their own well-being, but as Ken Dychtwald has said, so they can make necessary contributions instead of becoming long-living burdens on a younger society. I prefer the idea of "newcore" to an "encore" career, imagining that we bring a new set of earned core values to new, later-life aspirations.
SA: How is the economy affecting people's ability to take on a new career or passion?
BF: No one should underestimate the severe impact this recession is going to have on boomers. The poverty rate for people 55 to 64 is already rising significantly. The timing of the downturn, coupled with the decline in home values, could not have been worse. At the exact moment people's expectation for working beyond 65 had trebled over the previous decade, more than 2.2 million workers 55 and over find themselves unemployed. The likelihood is that many will age out of the work force before the economy expands enough to create opportunities for them. There's little doubt that unless public officials stop wasting time with puerile, partisan and obstructionist politics, we are likely to see a collision of devastating demographic and economic forces, exacerbated by the failure to fund research to end the growing epidemic of Alzheimer's and other dementias.
SA: What are the other big challenges facing boomers?
BF: Underlying several major challenges is the need for boomers to realize how much is at stake in repurposing later life, not only for themselves but to lessen the burden on their children and future generations. It is vitally important boomers heed what neuroscientists are discovering about the importance of intellectual and social engagement, stress reduction and aerobic activity, including a recent study that found that just 30 minutes of walking a day can help prevent cognitive decline. No doubt, the view of a certain age will change as it did in the last century. But because of the demographic tsunami we're facing, boomers need to lead a movement to address it just as they once protested for Civil Rights or against the war in Vietnam.
SA: What's next for you?
BF: Like many others, I'm trying to find meaningful work to help pay my way and children's school tuitions while I work on a new book about dance and the brain. As part of the research for that book, I hope to soon begin taking intensive tango lessons. I'm also hoping to return to my poetry and complete a book of poems.
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