Part I. The Third Age: What can it mean to us?
The life course has changed dramatically during the past century. Especially in developed societies like the United States, we have experienced a longevity revolution. The average life expectancy in the USA has increased thirty years – from 47 years in 1900 to 78 years in 2,009. In effect, we have received a thirty-year life bonus. The fastest growing cohort in America today is centenarians – from 3,000 in 1965 to over 70,000 in 2005. Those living to 100 may number one million in 2050.
Not only are many people living much longer than ever, some have begun to transform aging. What does it mean to be “old” today? Just thirty years ago the conventional view of aging was defined by D words: decline, degeneration, disease, disability, dependency, and decrepitude. Old age was said to begin at 60 and go steadily downhill. But now we are beginning to see a very different experience in this period in life. Recently we’ve heard that 60 is the new 40, 70 the new 50. Some seniors are showing that older can be much younger than we thought. Many Baby Boomers turning 60 are breaking boundaries of aging.
In contrast to the conventional view we have been learning about alternative models, such as successful aging, creative aging, vital aging, and aging well. In December, 2007 a conference on Positive Aging sponsored by AARP and other organizations in Saint Petersburg, Florida, brought together several hundred professionals and researchers to explore new options for aging. Aging isn’t what it used to be. As more and more people over 50 develop lifestyles very different from what we have seen in the past, research has been discovering what enables positive aging. As the psychiatrist Gene Cohen has explained, in the past thirty years we have learned that the brain, instead of diminishing, can add neurons and dendrites; and it can operate more creatively and effectively, using both right and left hemispheres simultaneously. Neuroscience’s discovery of positive brain plasticity has shown gains in cognitive capacity, which enables the kind of creative change in the life course of people that I have been following in 25 years of longitudinal studies.
In my book, THE THIRD AGE: SIX PRINCIPLES OF GROWTH AND RENWAL AFTER 40, I described people who have been growing after 50 rather than declining. Their lives have been marked by R words: renewal, rejuvenation, regeneration, reinvention, rediscovery, and redirection. In my next book, with co-author James Krefft, CHANGING COURSE: NAVIGATING LIFE AFTER 50, I focused on people who were sustaining what I call second growth into their 60s and 70s. These pioneers on a frontier of positive aging have shown me possibilities, opportunities, and challenges in a new middle period of life. I call this period the third age. In other countries this term just refers to an age of retirement. But for me it names an era in the life course after 50, made possible by a 30-year life bonus. The third age represents a new middle period with options for creative change and fulfillment, after a second age focused on achievement and preceding the fourth age, which is a period of completion after 80.
(PART II OF THIS ARTICLE WILL BE CONTINUED IN THE AUGUST NEWSLETTER)