If all goes well people will stop choosing traditional retirement and start living vibrant lives they have created.
They will use a framework of freedom, geography of place and a personal version of productivity. They will live as if inventing lives of productive longevity were the most natural thing in the world and as if their future of wellbeing depended on it- which it does.
Then AARP can cease shouting, “Sixty is the new 60.” We’ll already know it.
Marc Freedman, author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond MidLife, declared, “The sixty-somethings will invent an entirely new stage of life – between the end of middle adulthood and old age and retirement.”
I’m all for forging ahead with this new spirit of aging but Freedman’s forecast –now four years old – is not happening. There is no uprising of individuals enthusiastically engaged in transformation and the creative design for a new stage of life.
Instead, many of today’s individuals at 60 proceed using a bare outline of what they want in life.
So, Here’s the Deal.
Trying to figure out the decade while you’re in it is really hard to do.
The transition to late adulthood – without thoughtful planning – is one of the most precarious, interesting and increasingly important stages of life. (Hey, it’s your last thirty years on earth.)
Think of this leap to a new life stage as kayaking a life threatening Class V whitewater rapid that you didn’t bother to scout. Those rapids – “Beast of the East” “Inferno” “Terminator” – are named for a reason.
Shaping a future in all of your other decades was an inventive endeavor that involved dreams, priorities, trade-offs, risks, choices and challenges.
Unfortunately in your 50s this original approach to life design is stymied by a looming social construct. Retirement was once considered the golden twilight of an American life cycle – kind and comfortable.
But traditional retirement no longer works in reality. It hasn’t worked for a long time and we just haven’t gotten around to creating a new version to take its place. No wonder the shift from traditional retirement to a new paradigm is not well underway.
We are older and healthier for longer, but not smarter it seems.
Following a Vapor Trail of Uncertainty.
Right now I’m living and working in Cuenca, Ecuador, for three months. Cuenca, at an altitude of 8,200 feet, is the third largest city in Ecuador and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site known for its spring-like weather and low cost of living. With a growing population of about 500,000, Cuenca has attracted more than 2,000 English-speaking foreign residents in recent years – most from the United States.
In this third world country, the city is considered an artistic center known for its art, music, ceramics, jewelry, leather work, musical instruments and Panama hats. Better yet, the drinking water is safe and so are the streets at night.
The city charms me every day with beautiful views of surrounding mountains, interactions with the soft-spoken indigenous women at the market, and long walks without seeing even one Gringo. (I feared they would be everywhere.)
The expats aren’t readily visible unless you go over where they live outside the historic district in Gringolandia, find a restaurant made popular by them or attend one of the functions they organize such as a monthly art viewing, writing group, bridge and board games or jazz night.
In the last six weeks, I’ve talked with over twenty people in their late 50s and early 60s – now permanent residents or seriously looking to move here from heartland places like Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas and one from Alaska.
An educated crowd (PhD’s from Stanford, Indiana University and UCLA), all chose traditional retirement from successful careers such as dentistry, film making, university teaching, healthcare and sales.
Not as an assignment, but because I became curious through casual conversation (and hearing similar themes) I posed three questions to better understand how these individuals ended up here and how they were deciding to live their lives.
What I discovered dismays me. Take a look:
1. How did you choose this place?
Most wandered down – in vague ways – sometimes serendipitous. They met a person who knew a person who had an aunt in Iowa who was in Cuenca two decades ago and liked it, so they came. Twice I was told the city turned up in a Google search and they bought a ticket the next day.
One man describes his random choice process: “Well, I ran into a man in a hotel lobby in Quito and he needed someone to teach English to dentists so they would pass their final English Exam. I figured I could do that so I moved to Riobamba for two months but it was too cold so I ended up here.”
Another answer -“We came; we liked; we stayed.” Add another that makes sense, “I wanted away from winter.”
2. What are you doing with your life?
Getting a definite answer was difficult no matter how I re-worded the question: How do you spend your time? What do you do? Many said they didn’t have a plan because they didn’t know how long they were staying (even though some had permanent residency.)
“How long do you think you might stay? Answers: “Not sure.” “Maybe a year.” “Haven’t decided.” “We’ll see.” “I really don’t know.” “Could be one month or three.” One person said flatly, “forever.” (At least it was definitive.)
By now, apparent these late-in-life adults were not sure-footed at least in terms of a permanent locale, I tried to progress the conversation gently and return to the question of what they were doing with their living. Answers varied. “What I’m doing is meeting a lot of people.” (Common comment: “I’ve made more friends here than I ever had back in my other life.)”
“And you know, I’m just hanging around.” “I’m writing. No, not every day, only when I feel like it.” “I like to go to the symphony (free.)” “I walk along the Tomebama River. ” “Whatever I feel like doing.” The most common answer, “Not much.”
Ask if they want to work. the immediate eager response is, “Oh, I don’t need money.” Who said anything about money? Any question pertaining to work, dream job, extending a career arc, exploring talents, or starting a business was a conversation stopper.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
You can imagine since the answer to #2 – What are you doing with your life? - illuminated a human condition of drifting and to probe beyond tomorrow noon was awkward.
But in one chat concerning his free-floating sense of letting-life-unfold position, Bill (not his real name) explains, “Look, you know shipping containers? Well, most people live their lives in that container. I choose not to be in that container. No structure is my goal. None.”
To set the record straight, I did meet two people (not in the sample) who sought approval from Ecuador to validate their credentials (paperwork, hassles) and they continue careers here in Cuenca.
Everyone else prefers to move through days as if getting the feel of living or of new freedom, perhaps.
Epidemic of Uncertainty?
Finding fulfillment in later life is one of the greatest aspirations for those of us with health and enough money to open a bank account. Or is it?
Could there be post-retirement confusion about that? Is this the new freedom of escape instead of the new freedom of engagement with life?
In this unscientific study, talking with individuals about his/her life and plans was like being in a room without a view.
I’m trying to be a truth teller here. Perhaps the people I met suffered from burnout or some awful job and they need a period where they concentrate on “being” instead of “doing.” Their need for time out could be perfectly understandable.
And don’t get me wrong, I get living in the moment. I like to do that on some mornings I wake up. But a lifetime of living in the moment isn’t good for me.
And there is nothing wrong with being unless you want to grow into your best life. Then, being and doing are necessary.
What was the Question Again? Who Am I?
My father never understood the reason three of his four children had to move from Ohio to Boulder, Colorado. Spaced four years apart each one declared, “I need to go sit on a mountain top and find myself.”
His response never wavered in intensity. “Ah, hell, why can’t you just find yourself right here?”
The truth is we don’t find a “self,” we create a “self.” Our job as human being is to grow and create the best of ourselves.
I think the biggest difficulty of being 60 is realizing we’ve actually gained a lot of time and opportunity but we should have been imagining and planning in our 50s. We can overcome this.
Why not take time to consider how you’d like to be seen in the world and then work strategically to accomplish that, rather than waiting for life to happen to you?
Meg Jay, clinical psychologist, author, speaker and professor at the University of Virginia proclaims in her TED talk on “Why Your Twenties Matter,” that 80 percent of our defining moments happen before the age of 35. I’m not buying that.
A defining moment is a point at which a situation is clearly seen. Bursts of clarity help people get out of their own way.
To think any decade can put a cap on human potential is simply not true. But defining moments require new thinking.
So I’m wondering.
If I set up a stall to give away defining moments in the market tomorrow next to the shamans healing sick babies, do you think anyone might come?
Man in the Tuque: Nicolette Agnew
All Others: Barbara Pagano