Refusing to Age Gracefully: The New Frontier

by rthieme on March 29, 2007

Mid-life issues, I learned from twenty years of professional ministry and my own life experience, are as predictable as those of adolescence. When they emerge, it doesn’t always mean a crisis but it does generally mean that a passage is under way.

Carl Jung illuminated the midlife passage by describing the process of individuation. During individuation, which intensifies between 35 and 45, we incorporate attributes from within ourselves that we previously looked to others to provide.

The midlife passage can be an opportunity or the end of a relationship. Couples either renegotiate the terms of their relationships and put themselves on a new footing or go their separate ways. We just don’t need others in the same ways that we needed them before.

A book that helped me during that time was The Seasons of a Man’s Life by Daniel J. Levinson. The basis for popular books like Passages, it defined adult stages of male development in depth and detail. From the mid-twenties to the mid-fifties, developmental tasks presented themselves as certainly as forging an identity was required in the teens and twenties.

But Levinson lived in a time when midlife was the primary concern of most men – a book about women was written later – and the challenge and adventure of aging was not on anyone’s radar. Levinson defined the period after sixty as senescence – a churlish word, uttered with the pride of life – and left that part of the map blank. He might as well have written, “beyond here be monsters” and drawn a big serpent with a coiled tail.

But we are living longer and longer and we are gong to live longer and longer. The average life span for a man in America went from 47 in 1900 to 78 in 2000. Medical advances and the enhancement of our bodies through chemicals, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and anti-aging protocols in this century may mean that 130 or more will be within our reach.

The fastest growing segment of the population by percentage increase is over 100. The segment from 80 to 100 is next.

So as I look out over the deep waters of the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and more – while that particular passage may not be my fate, it will be the fate of many – where are the helpful texts? Where are the stories of mentors who have gone before? What are the developmental tasks of this period, what unique challenges do these decades pose?

The shelf is empty. Nobody knows. We are writing the book as we live it.

We will take this territory inch by inch as we redefine ourselves for a time of life when most of our parents were checking out.

This is the real new frontier of the twenty-first century. Space travel will take us to other planets and other star systems, other races and civilizations will emerge in the foreground of our consciousness, identity will be reinvented through myriad technologies, changing the essential definition of what it means to be human. We are already fledgling cyborgs, running on plastic joints and putting implants into our heads as well as our hearts.  But what we do with the life that these changes enable, that’s the real challenge. What will transformation mean for society and culture writ large?

Above all … what will it mean for us?

I have reinvented myself for three distinct careers. Each required a different persona and much of the joy of my life consisted of creating personas equal to the challenge. Now I find that reinvention is not over. I have to do it again, and maybe again. There is no book, no wise parent to point the way. Pre-boomers and boomers are linked in this endeavor by destiny and default, and the pursuit of creative solutions will define our ability to age, not gracefully, but robustly, engaged with the complex challenges presented by globalization and the colonization of inner and outer space. This is the joy of our reprieve, this undeserved beneficence, this terrific mountain, promising magnificent vistas, well worth the arduous climb.

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