How the golden years disappeared

At 50, I made a startling realization: I was burning out, but nowhere near retirement -- and I wasn't alone

By Marc Freedman

Published April 3, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

I turned fifty and decided to take a break. After twenty-five years of working, it seemed like a good idea. Honestly, I was feeling depleted. I still cared about my career and realized, amid a worsening economic climate, that I was lucky to have one. But that appreciation felt more lodged in my head than my heart.

One day, United Airlines sent me a card, along with some new luggage tags, offering congratulations on having flown 2 million miles. Quick arithmetic translated all those zeroes into the equivalent of flying from one side of the country to the other every single day -- Sundays, holidays, birthdays, sick or well -- for more than two years. Maybe the card from United should have offered condolences. It all added up to an abiding fatigue. And a question: Did I want to fly 2 million more miles over the next twenty-five years of my life?

Was I having a low-grade midlife crisis? I had no red sports car, reckless affair, or other obvious sign something was amiss. Instead, there seemed to be internal bleeding -- a sense that the energy and optimism were ebbing out of me. My hope was that a three-month sabbatical would cure all that, bringing needed rest and clarity. After ten years of running the non-profit organization I'd founded -- a think tank on boomers, work and social purpose -- I thought I might be able to arrange some combination of vacation and leave. My board, perhaps a little worried about me as well, was happy to oblige.

I resolved to get away, far away. Soon I was looking at hotel reservations in Australia, contemplating time in Southeast Asia, marking off several months in the calendar. I purchased plane tickets, for myself, my wife, and our kids. Then the reality set in -- the cost, the time away, living out of a suitcase for weeks on end. It all sounded eerily like one more business trip. A down payment on the road to 3 million miles? Do they give you the actual luggage when you hit that milestone?

I canceled the Australian hotels. I called the airlines to say forget it. My three-month sabbatical Down Under was downsized into a two-week car trip in a dented Prius up the Pacific Coast from San Francisco, where I live, to Oregon. After consulting the map and locating the midpoint for our journey, I got on the phone with the Homewood Suites in Medford, Oregon, to make reservations for our first stop en route to the Pacific Northwest. In the spirit of frugality -- after all, I was already out a thousand bucks before our trip had even started -- I asked about discounts. The AAA rate knocked off 20 percent. Great. Then it dawned on me. I was fifty years old, after all. I had shelled out for the AARP card when prompted. What about the "senior" discount?

In that moment on the phone with the reservation clerk, a series of truths about my quiet crisis became evident. The odd combination of discounts and requests -- signs of what once indicated distinct parts of the life cycle separated by decades -- made one thing abundantly clear and personal: The old map of life, which guided us for generations, was rapidly becoming an anachronism.  What's the category for people like me? There are a growing number of us who can be classified as neither-nors. Neither young nor old. Neither retirees nor of traditional parenting age. Tired, perhaps, but neither ready to be retired nor able to afford it. The truth is, I will probably be working for another twenty-five years, the second half of my adult life.

What's more, this isn't just about me or my boomer colleagues. New research suggests that children the age of my kids, growing up in the developed world, can reasonably expect to see their one hundredth birthdays. The odds of doing so, by some estimates, exceed 50 percent. In other words, those of us hitting fifty today are simply the first generation to inhabit an emerging lifecourse, one that is in flux but will be a permanent change, not a passing aberration.

In 1900, the life span in the United States was forty-seven. Today, it is approaching eighty (although great disparities persist across class and race). Overall, that's an increase in a hundred years approximating all the gains since the beginning of time. And the length of life may well be headed toward the century mark. Some think the upward rise will be even more precipitous. Yet while we've been remarkably adept at extending lives, our imagination and innovation in remaking the shape of those longer lives have been struggling to keep pace. In the words of anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, we're "living longer and thinking shorter." The situation is beginning to fray, especially in the period of life that is emerging between traditional midlife and what used to be occupied by retirement and old age. It's fair to say that this condition constitutes a long-standing problem, one that existed even before longer lives and changing demographics made it a much bigger one. The territory between middle age and old age has long been shaky ground, "unstable social space," in the words of cultural historian Thomas Cole.

Remarkably, the first recipient of Social Security, a bookkeeper named Ida May Fuller, started to collect her checks in 1940. She proceeded to live another thirty-five years, long enough to witness the ascent and disbanding of the Beatles and the landing of the man on the moon. (For her total $24.75 contribution, she received $22,888.92 in benefits, perhaps qualifying her as the nation's first de facto lottery winner, as well as its inaugural Social Security recipient.) Indeed, the time between the end of work and the end of life was already starting to raise uncomfortable questions in the decades following the establishment of Social Security and mass retirement -- most fundamentally, what do you do with yourself during this period? Medical experts were advising a quiet existence, rocking peacefully in Whistler's Mother-like fashion.

It took ingenuity to redesign lives to keep up with changes in longevity and society in mid-twentieth-century America, but we rose to the occasion. We plugged the purpose gap with something called the "golden years," a stunning innovation that almost overnight turned an arid economic institution, retirement, from an anteroom to the great beyond into a core component of the American dream. We did such a good job of making virtue out of seeming necessity that soon retirement at sixty-five wasn't enough. Even as lives were already lengthening, we wanted retirement earlier and earlier. We couldn't wait to stop working and start playing in a period that was fashioned by financial marketers and housing entrepreneurs as a kind of second childhood. Golf became the new symbol of late-life success. A new deal was struck around shorter working lives that turned the push out of the labor market into a powerful pull. The golden years shored up the postmidlife purpose gap for fifty years and then some, filling the unstable space with something aspirational and attainable. This was a dream for average Americans, not just the elite. But as lives lengthened and careers shortened, this fix grew shakier and shakier, especially as the vast wave of boomers began approaching.

Kurt Andersen, in his book "Reset," provides a useful context of broader changes in American life over the past quarter century. Andersen suggests that we are in the aftermath of what might be characterized as the bloating of America, a mass overextension that occurred between 1980 and the late 2000s. Mortgages mushroomed, debt ballooned, and our houses expanded, along with our waistlines. We could easily add the golden years to the package, as they went from an assumedly brief proposition at the end of life, a well-earned respite, to a thirty-year McMansion of a stage, inflated until it literally constituted the second half of adulthood. But it became both unattainable, for most individuals, and unsustainable, for a society soon to have more people over sixty than under fifteen. (And we're relatively young in the community of nations -- Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and Spain will see over-sixty populations approaching or exceeding 40 percent by the middle of the twenty-first century.)

Thirty-year retirements, in the era of the Great Recession? Let's face it, that is simply not going to work, nor is it desirable. Does it make much sense for society to throw away the most experienced segment of the population when it is a long way from obsolescence?

 The way to make the most of coming hundred-year life spans is not to stretch and strain the contours of a life course set up for a bygone era. That's like plastic surgery to make a seventy-year-old face look like a forty-year-old one -- the result is unnatural and the intention wrongheaded. Likewise, the answer to the unsustainability of thirty-year retirements is not substituting endless middle age for endless old age, the alternative some are proposing to the much longer life. Middle age, like all good things, eventually must reach an end. No use denying it. In Nora Ephron's words, "There's a moment when people know -- whatever their skills are at denial -- that they have passed from what they can delude themselves into thinking is middle age to something that you could call the third act." Ephron, now sixty-nine, declares, "I'm definitely in the third act." As the "third act" notion suggests, the reality is that the end of middle age is no longer, for most people, attached to the beginning of either retirement or old age. (It's like the transcontinental railroad, started at both ends, designed to eventually meet. However, the two ends of this project -- life -- don't meet anymore.) Individuals left in that lurch, in this unstable space that has no name, no clear beginning or end, no rites or routes of passage, face a contradictory culture, incoherent policies, institutions tailored for a different population, and a society that seems in denial that this period even exists.

The new migration is across time and the life course, as tens of millions (8,000 a day, one every ten seconds, are turning sixty) reach the spot where middle age used to end and old age once began, the new territory where a resurgent purpose gap, and gulf in identity, stands. Opportunity is there as well. The surge of people into this new stage of life is one of the most important social phenomena of the new century. Never before have so many people had so much experience and the time and the capacity to do something significant with it. That's the gift of longevity, the great potential payoff on all the progress we've made in extending lives. Realizing these possibilities will require the courage to break from old and familiar patterns that once were our friends but just don't work any longer. It means considering ideas like "gap years" for grown ups, new kinds of internships and fellowships for Americans moving beyond midlife, remodelling higher education to help retrain people who have been working for 40 or 50 years, even the creation of new kinds of investment accounts to help cover the costs of transitioning to new careers.

What we're facing is not a solo matter; it's a social imperative, an urgent one that must be solved as the great midlife migration gathers scale and momentum. Inventing a new stage of life is a conscious decision that won't happen by itself, easily or automatically, even as the soil becomes more fertile and conditions increasingly ripe.

From the book "The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife" by Marc Freedman. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.

Marc Freedman is the author of "Encore, Prime Time" and "The Kindness of Strangers." He is the founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank on boomers, work and social purpose. This article was excerpted from "The Big Shift," in stores April 5.

Marc Freedman

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