The Third Chapter

Today more people see their later decades as years of adventure, change, and growth.

The Third Chapter By Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Farrar, Straus and Giroux 261 pp., $25

On my great-grandmother’s 50th birthday in 1900, her 9-year-old daughter – my grandmother – went to her room and cried inconsolably. The little girl thought 50 was old and worried that her mother might not live many more years.

At the time, her concerns were not unfounded. Life expectancy then was just under 50. Today it averages 80, giving 21st-century Americans 30 more years than their forebears enjoyed a century ago. Turning 50 is hardly cause for tears.

Instead, it’s a time to reassess. The intriguing new question is: What to do with those extra decades? Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard sociologist, calls this “a significant and new developmental period in our culture,” a time ripe with possibilities for self-fulfillment.

In The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, she characterizes those in this age group as neither young nor old. Through interviews with 40 men and women who see themselves as “new learners,” she chronicles their dreams, vulnerabilities, and successes as they transition from lengthy careers to avocations and creative pursuits.

Their ranks include Mario Delgado, an industrial chemist who became a sculptor in his late 60s. Josh Carter, a former journalist and newspaper executive in his early 60s, now trains as a jazz pianist. Roma Wolfe, a 57-year-old physicist, has cut back on laboratory research to teach in an after-school program for low-income teens. And Grace Clark, who resigned from a university press at 57, is an emerging playwright.

Other new learners include a biologist who takes surfing lessons in her mid-50s and an architect who went on her first archaeological dig at 70.

On paper, it all sounds easy. But for many, success is hard won as they alternate between feelings of loss and liberation, pessimism and optimism. As Lawrence-Lightfoot explains, Third Chapter learning “requires humility, willingness to take risks, a capacity to look foolish....” She cautions that the path will not be smooth or straightforward.

Some Third-Chapter explorers discover a new sense of authority and courage. They welcome the chance to, in the words of poet Nikki Giovanni, “shatter the staleness” of their lives.
Carter, the journalist-turned-jazz-pianist, for example, revels in “deep connections between work and fun: the harder he tries and sweats, the more enjoyable it is.” And Wolfe, the physicist who works with teens, finds the hardest part of venturing is losing her fear and being able to face the unknown.

Other new learners must defy the long-ago voices of teachers and parents who told them, “You’ll never be able to [fill in the blank].”

Not all find the satisfaction they were seeking. Rachel Middleton left a nonprofit policy organization she had built and went to divinity school in search of spiritual renewal. The experience proved as disturbing as it was fulfilling.

In a youth-obsessed culture, stereotypes of aging often portray the later years as a time for leisure and retreat, rather than challenge and engagement. But as the ranks of older, better-educated Americans increase, more people in their Third Chapter will yearn for active engagement and a sense of purpose.

That desire drove Charles Watson, a senior partner in a law firm, to trade pinstripes for overalls and become an urban gardener. It also propelled Lucinda Miller to return to her earlier work as an international relief worker in war-torn countries. She regards her 50s as the best decade of her life so far.

Lawrence-Lightfoot concedes that these 40 people do not represent the majority of those in the Third Chapter. Educated and affluent, most enjoy a privileged status. As she explains, “they all lived lives of real – or perceived – abundance that allowed them to make choices and take risks, and, more important, they all came from educational and work backgrounds that offered them access and networks to a broad range of relationships, resources, and institutions.”

The book would have profited from a broader range of participants. Even so, many lessons these subjects learn are generally transferable to a more diverse range of people. Under certain economic, cultural, developmental, and temperamental conditions, Lawrence-Lightfoot believes, “most people might be able to develop the capacities to embark on new learning in their Third Chapter.”

Not everyone has the resources, energy, and determination to overcome the challenges inherent in later-life endeavors. And not all readers will agree with Lawrence-Lightfoot’s rather extravagant claim that “In our Third Chapter we are completely changed adults who care little for the decorum and rules that have defined our public personas in the past....”

Yet as she refutes limitation and encourages expansive thinking, Lawrence-Lightfoot opens up satisfying possibilities for many people in their later decades.

Successful aging, she notes, “requires that people continue – across their lifetime – to express a curiosity about their changing world, an ability to adapt to shifts in their developmental and physical capacities, and an eagerness to engage new perspectives, skills, and appetites. This requires the willingness to take risks, experience vulnerability and uncertainty, learn from experimentation and failure, seek guidance and counsel from younger generations, and develop new relationships of support and intimacy.”

That’s good advice at any age.

Marilyn Gardner is a Monitor staff writer.

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