Growing through the Third Age and Redefining Retirement

With Life Portfolios and Third Age Careers


  By William A. Sadler, Ph.D.


This paper is based on a presentation given at the International Conference on Aging in Montreal , October 4, 2004 entitled: Toward a New Perspective: from Ageing to Ageing Well.

 Our Life Context

            I will share with you what I have learned from twenty years of research, following people who have been creatively redesigning their middle years and promoting growth instead of decline. The significance of these findings increases greatly when we see this growth in the context of recent changes in the life course.

            A Nobel Laureate, when asked what was the greatest achievement of the 20th Century, replied: greater longevity. We have experienced a Longevity Revolution, which has given many of us the equivalent of a 30-year Life Bonus. In the United States , the average life expectancy increased from 47.7 to 77.7. Life expectancy in many modern countries is already over 80 years and rising. In the United States the fastest growing cohort is centenarians, up to 70,000 in 2000 from just 3,000 in 1965. The census predicts nearly 2 million centenarians in 2050.

           We have received an extraordinary gift of life. What will we do with all the extra years? If we follow the usual pattern of aging, we will spend them in a course marked by D words: decline, degeneration, disease, dependency, disability, and decrepitude. Those are words associated with usual aging. But we have an option to go another route, one defined by R words like renewal, reinvention, rejuvenation, and redirection. Our challenge is not just to extend our lives, but also to increase the quality of our lives in the second half. That is what I have learned from the lives I’ve studied.

In the past twenty years I have been interviewing people who have impressed me with their vitality, creativity, and continued growth through their fifties, sixties, and seventies. They have helped me realize that we have a new middle period, The Third Age, in which to develop our potential for creative self-realization, purposeful living, more meaningful relationships, and social contribution. Until now The Third Age has meant basically an era of retirement. I see it as having much greater meaning. I like to use a Four Age model to describe the life course:

§         The First Age is for Preparation

§         The Second Age is for Achievement

§         The Third Age is for Fulfillment

§         The Fourth Age is for Completion.

Much impressive research has shown how the Fourth Age can be filled with Successful Aging, Creative Aging, Aging Well, and Vital Aging. My research has focused on the decades between late 40s to late 70s, that period that gets lost among the stereotypes of Middle Age and usual Aging. The Third Age represents a new option in midlife and offers us opportunities previous generations did not have. Specifically we have the potential for what I have called second growth in the Third Age. Realizing the challenges and potential benefits of second growth is especially important for the cohort of Baby Boomers, already into their Third Age.

Six Principles of Growth and Renewal after 50

            Twenty years ago I started interviewing people in their late 40’s and early 50’s, to learn first hand about their experience of Middle Age. I didn’t like what the textbooks and media were telling me. After interviewing about 200 people, I realized I was meeting some individuals who weren’t following the conventional models of aging. As I started to track several dozen of them, I kept asking: how do they do it? What are they doing to start new growth? How do they sustain their growth? After a dozen years I began to see several paradoxical principles operating in their lives. In my last book I described the principles and showed how they applied to the stories these people have told me.2 For the most part this book described how people initiate growth in and through their 50’s, though a few of these individuals were in their 60’s and 70’s. In a book just finished with my co-author James Krefft, Ph.D., we asked people in their 60’s and 70’s: How do you sustain your growth? In both cases we have seen lives exhibiting these six principles.

  • Reflection and Risk Taking. All these people engage in soul-searching questions about their lives, where they are going, what they hope for. They practice mindful reflection and greater awareness. But they also risk action in new directions. They engage in significant challenges that rejuvenate them

  • Realistic Optimism. They develop an optimistic spirit, a resilience that is remarkable, especially since many of them have suffered setbacks, illness, losses, and severe disappointments.

  • Building a positive Third Age Identity. Most of us develop an adult identity in the roles we play in basic institutions: work, family, community. As we enter the second half of life we start asking again: who am I? This task involves forming a post-institutional identity by addressing some crucial questions: What kind of person do I want to become? How do I define success now? What does my age mean? How can I grow young while I also accept growing older? The challenge of building a new identity is the core principle in Third Age renewal, where the next principles also find expression.

  • Redefining and Balancing Work and Play. I was surprised to hear people say, when I expected them to tell me they want to stop working, work is more important now. But important work is not necessarily their job or profession. It’s work redefined. Marty, who burned out as a schoolteacher, told me: I’ve realized that my work is not my job. He eventually quit his job, so that he could express his passion, which was to develop his creativity in art, crafts, cooking, and community projects. Work at its best is a passage to our identity. Marty was reinventing himself with work newly defined. While committing themselves to work, these people also put more play into their lives – and into their work.

  • Enlarging Freedom and developing Greater Intimacy. There seems to be a natural urge within us after 50 to have more freedom, to do what we really want rather than what we have to. These people tell me: a priority now is to have greater freedom – to do what I want and value. But in their freedom they also grow closer to others. They do not choose a youthful goal of autonomy but of independence balanced with interdependence.

  • Expanding our capacity to care: caring for those we love, for our communities, for Earth, and for ourselves. As other studies have shown, these people who grow and age well exhibit generativity. They become caretakers for expanding, multigenerational families, and mentors of people at work and young people in their communities, contributors to organizations and society, and protectors of the environment. But they also balance caring for others with mindful caring for themselves. They design active, healthy lifestyles and chose activities that bring a sense of meaning, pleasure, and fun.

The people whose stories fill both books, each in their own way, show how these principles operate. There is no one right way. The paradoxical principles can serve as guidelines for those of us who chose to take an alternative path in the life course, defined by R rather than D words. I have been particularly heartened to see how creatively people apply the principles to their lives. Especially meaningful to me has been the formation of The Center for Third Age Leadership, an enterprise formed by a dozen business professionals around the country who want to apply the principles to the work force. These professionals have designed workshops, seminars, and retreats to introduce others to the principles and help them apply them. Recently a group of personal and executive coaches have designed practical applications, including a Coaching Guide and a Workbook for clients, who want help planning their transition into Third Age Fulfillment. A more complete description of all these activities may be found on our website.3

Redefining Retirement

            When my co-author and I started research for our book that builds on the last one, we wanted to find out how these people sustained growth. A common element, which we hadn’t expected, was that they all disliked the idea of retirement. In their last book Erik and Joan Erikson observed that retirement seems to condemn many to a life of inertia and inactivity. Our people seem to agree. Retire? That’s what I do when I go to bed. I don’t want to retire in life, I want to go on reinventing myself, a former bank executive told us when he was planning his fifth career at 65. Another said, when I left the company, I didn’t retire, I graduated; and that meant commencing to something totally new. Though many of those over 60 are classified as “retired,” they have in fact shown creativity in redefining retirement.

            I met El 18 years ago, just after he had “retired” from a position as comptroller of a Fortune 500 company at the age of 49. What prompted him to make such a bold a move? I went to a wellness seminar in which I was told to state the purpose of my life. I had never done anything like that before. I came up with this: “The purpose of my life is to be the person I can be and to share.” This realization came from an a growing awareness that he had much creative potential that was not being expressed in his job. His hobby was woodcarving; that was his passion. He decided to make it his vocation. He and his wife shared a dream, and they risked making it a reality. They soon moved from Boston to a farm in Maine , where she opened an antique store and he carved. In addition they became very involved in their community. Eighteen years later they are thriving in the new life they have created together. Everyday I am grateful for the freedom I have to design my days, which is so different from the corporate world. Five years ago they sold their farm to restore a 19th century lodge, to make it a symbol of a set of values they want to pass on to the children of Maine . How does he view success now? Success is doing what you love and loving what you do. That pretty much describes how I see my life. El and his wife have been redesigning their lives with the 6 principles and redefining retirement as an ongoing commencement to something totally new.

Building a Third Age Life Portfolio

            I have been impressed by the design these people bring to their lives. El tapped creative potential by choosing to become a wood carver, environmentalist, and community leader. Like others, he has expressed creative potential in designing a successful life. In looking at their various life designs, my co-author and I have realized that these people have been developing a Third Age Life Portfolio, which contains the many important interests they have. I have so many interests. The challenge is to fit them all in people tell us. Into their portfolios, designed like artists forging an ensemble of creative endeavors, they place various kinds of work and play, important relationships (family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues), forms of service, areas for new growth, health care, time to care for and enjoy their home and garden, travel plans, opportunities for continued learning, and spiritual development. Their life portfolios keep changing as they fine-tune their values, interests, and priorities.

            Susan had several careers in her Second Age. In her early 50’s she left a position as vice president when her bank merged. She decided to form her own consulting company, to offer services to individuals and organizations in ways that expressed her core values. She was successful in this venture, but realized she wanted to make other changes. Susan wanted to be closer to nature, so she left a metropolitan area to make her home in a river community with an environmental mission. She became a leader in her neighborhood community; she also began pro bono work with women, who want help building suitable careers. A single woman, she maintains close relationship to a large family, and particularly enjoys “grand mothering” her many nieces and nephews. In her 60s she added daily activities to promote healthy living: long walks, workouts with Curves, Yoga, and several sports like kayaking, canoeing, hiking, and biking. Spending time with good friends, with long, intimate conversations, music, and laughter has become a valued part of her portfolio. She also spends more time now developing her spirituality; and at 67 she is fully engaged in a doctoral program she plans to finish when she’s 70, at the same time she hopes to publish a book of her poetry. She is not sure she’ll ever get to retirement. I’m trying to live and do as much as I want now, so that my life already has those elements that I’m looking forward to in Protirement. Her portfolio represents a life structure that creatively redefines retirement and brings fulfillment.

Third Age Careers

            These people keep working, but not in the same way they did in their Second Age. By redefining and enlarging the scope of their work they have been carving out Third Age Careers. In so doing they often continue to earn some income, but they are also free to contribute to society on a volunteer basis. In the United States , 70 million Baby Boomers will soon be retiring at the rate of 10,000 per day. Leaders and key people will leave a vacuum that cannot be filled by the smaller cohort behind them. By creatively changing their employment contracts with Third Age Careers, Baby Boomers can experience greater fulfillment, flexibility, and freedom while still contributing services society cannot afford to lose. I have been working with lawyers and nurses to help them transition into redefined careers to avert a growing crisis in the workforce. This possibility represents a significant opportunity for both extended personal growth and sustainable economic development.

            The emerging development of growth and renewal in the Third Age presents us with a new paradigm in the life course. Those of us over 50 are challenged to affirm the prescient, bold claim made by Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra:

           Grow old with me. The best is yet to be;

            The last of life for which the first was made.