Realizing the Possibilities

"Consider the prospect of tens of millions with experience, perspective, and capacity, and one begins to glimpse an emerging sweet spot not just for individuals but for society as well, a nation of grown-ups uniquely suited to taking on the complex challenges of our time. As uplifting as this prospect is, there is no escaping the need for realism when it comes to realizing these possibilities. I'm reminded of historian Thomas Hine's comment about G. Stanley Hall's enthusiasm for adolescence. Hine points out that from reading Hall, one might have assumed adolescence was lived out in Valhalla, when in reality it occurred in a place called high school.

"Indeed, just as everybody who gets older doesn't get wiser, not everyone will find the ideal I've upheld or suggested . . . Many will face health issues — their own and those of family members — that will impede their ability to act on this unique combination of factors. Many will simply not have the wherewithal — financial, emotional, logistical — to make critical changes in their lives. Longevity itself is deeply linked to education and class. There are differences in the experiences and prospects of women and men as they approach this phase. And there are ways that this new stage could backfire, contributing new rigidities to another lockstep life course rather than opening up more opportunities for development, contribution, and meaning.

"Our ability to make the most of the possibilities presented by a new stage of life will require facing up to these and other formidable challenges. In doing so we likewise need to remember that we're not just carving out a new period for those who will inhabit it now, or even in the future. We're remaking the entire shape of lives. This stage will change the nature of every other stage and have an impact that resonates throughout the life course. That's why it is not just up to us at the vanguard of this new period to be involved in creating a new stage of life; it's a project for all ages. The whole of society has a stake in the outcome.

"The time for that project has come. A perfect storm of circumstances — yet another confluence — is lining up behind this project: the demographic revolution of nearly 80 million boomers moving through their fifties, sixties, and soon seventies; the longevity transformation that is extending life spans throughout the developed world; economic circumstances that are pushing toward longer productive (and income-earning) lives, along with policy changes that seem to be heading in the same direction; a raft of research showing the vast capacities of people in the second half of their lives, far beyond what was long assumed; and even negative forces, such as all the worries that an increase in the proportion of individuals over sixty is going to cause serious problems. This kind of concern, in the past, has often served as a powerful force in the creation of new stages.

"These potent conditions join powerful vision to help push us toward a decision — one that would create this stage as a route to bringing more sense to individual lives and society more broadly, to turn what is widely portrayed as a kind of national midlife crisis into America's midlife opportunity. The midlife migration is on its way. Whether 'we build it' or not, they will come. What happens will depend on how adept we are at designing this new period and the culture, institutions, and other features that go with it.

"There are signs of organizational creativity and change already under way, of new pathways, programs, and policies, inklings of a landscape better aligned to a twenty-first-century life course. It's no surprise that many of the most innovative are taking form in the transitional space from the middle years to the new chapter, as so many are lining up to cross into this new land."