Societal Challenges

Creating a new map of life

May 3, 2016
By Marc Freedman

Let’s invent a new life stage between the middle years and old age, in ways that can help transform the purported longevity paradox—good for older people, bad for everyone else—into the payoff for individuals and society that it has the potential to be.

 Life stages are fictions, not fixtures. Every fifty years or so, when the life course needs adjusting, we cook up new chapters. Such was the case with the invention of the “golden years” fifty years ago, when we concocted a vision of retirement as a kind of second adolescence (graying as playing). Fifty years before that we fashioned adolescence itself. At the time, the country was experiencing a proliferation of “neither-nors,” of young people who were neither children nor adults, and considered a potentially destabilizing social force. We resolved this tension through a social invention—a new stage post-childhood.

Today we’re once again witnessing a population explosion of neither-nors—people between life stages as currently defined—only these individuals aren’t teenagers, they are women and men moving beyond midlife. We don’t even know how to characterize them. Experts talk about the “young-old” and the “working-retired.” We might as well call this period the oxymoronic years.

This situation is neither sustainable nor desirable. Who wants to be an oxymoron for a period that could be as long as midlife in duration? And how can society work well when a fifth to a quarter of the population is residing in a kind of limbo land—suspended between stages of an old map of life that was not designed for the longevity revolution or for equally profound demographic shifts.

The moment for change is ripe. And the good news is that millions are already living out a productive and engaged vision for the years between the 50s and 70s that promises to make the prospect of longer lives work better, and to realize the societal benefits of the experience dividend. As the science fiction writer William Gibson observes, “the future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed.” In other words, in bringing about the needed change we won’t be confined to the abstract. Roles models for the needed change are everywhere about us.

Proposed Solution/Action

In fashioning this new stage of life between the middle years and anything resembling retirement or old age, we should finally break free from the longstanding tendency to see later life as a pale version of youth—60 as the new 40. Rather, we need to embrace the unique assets of this period and population. And we need to do so in a way that’s workable not only for the Boomers, but for all those younger people coming quickly on their heels, who will soon be at this juncture themselves.

How do you invent this new stage of life in a way that holds the greatest potential for individuals and society? To start, we should:

  1. Rebrand this period of life around the ideas of purpose and legacy—most fully embodied in the encore career phenomenon;
  2. Celebrate and learn from those already living out a robust version of this phase;
  3. Create a new set of pathways, products, policies, and rites of passage to help prepare people for this period—including financial vehicles better supporting the transition to it; and,
  4. Build a movement of those who have much to gain from widespread adoption of this idea

Watch this seminar led by Rob Kron, head of Investment and Retirement Education for BlackRock, for an overview of:

  • How Social Security benefits work for your clients
  • When and how your clients can start receiving Social Security benefits
  • Opportunities to increase benefits throughout retirement
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    Marc Freedman

    About the author

    Marc Freedman
    Founder and CEO, Encore

    Visiting Scholar at Stanford University last year and formerly a Visiting Fellow at King’s College, University of London, Freedman is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s “Experts” panel and a frequent commentator in the national media. He is the author of four books, including most recently, “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.” He was recognized as a 2014 Social Entrepreneur of the Year from the World Economic Forum and the Schwab Foundation and a winner of the 2010 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Fast Company magazine named him as one of the nation’s leading social entrepreneurs three years in a row.