Marc Freedman has a provocative post up on the HBR lob. He starts with a quintessential story of “reinvention.”
Gary Maxworthy spent three decades in business until a personal tragedy prompted him to reexamine his priorities. He left the corporate world behind, set off to find his true calling, and in the process discovered both a new identity and the path to accomplishing his most important work fighting hunger.
In this telling, Maxworthy is an archetypal example of the reinvention mythology that seems omnipresent today, especially when it comes to those in the second half of life. Self-help columns are packed with reinvention tips. Financial services ads depict beaming boomers opening B&Bs and vineyards. More magazine, that bastion of midlife uplift for women over 40, even sponsored a series of reinvention conventions.
The trouble is that a counter-myth of dramatic and life altering transformation can also become radically disempowering and lead people to miss the value of much more subtle changes in one’s life and work.
Freedman knows a little something about this as founder and CEO of Encore.org, which annually gives out The Purpose Prize for social innovators in the second half of life. He concludes…
That perspective has not only influenced our view of youth, but of later life. The Golden Years retirement mythology was built around the dream of a second childhood, graying as playing. Retirement communities were age segregated not only to avoid school taxes, but somewhat paradoxically, to evade the idea of old age itself. If everyone was old, then no one was old.
To me that’s the most damaging part of the reinvention mythology: the preoccupation not only with rebirth, but with youth itself, even as it is slipping away. Today 70 is upheld as the new 50, 60 the new 40 or even 30, and 50 practically adolescence.
The most perfect proof that youth has slipped from our grasp is the day when we begin to pine for what now lies beyond our grasp– the thoughtless squander of time and energy on things we know do not and will not matter.
The most genuine embrace of age lies in Freedman’s formulation of a reintegration of all that came before. This is life at its most elemental, this is the sweet alchemy that can convert what is into what ought to be.
Lorraine Banfield says
I got your book today, Second Wind, and in it you talk about the three kinds of people – baby boomers – out there; the Denialists, The Realists and the Enthusiasts – well, it would seem to me that you are advocating that the first two types “reinvent” themselves into Enthusiasts – is that not the theme and purpose of your book?
I have written a book about hearing the call of your soul at midlife and beyond and I use the word reinvent in the subtitle. As a psychotherapist, I have worked with many people who indeed did need to reinvent themselves, as they had taken roads and paths that at midlife and later, seemed unrewarding to them or that had simply run out of enthusiasm or were burned out on the fast paced environment where they worked and wanted to revitalize their lives in a new way that felt soulful and meaningful. My work and my book, although using the term reinvention, does not advocate a jettisoning of everything they have ever done off the back of their boat and starting a completely new life, unrelated to their previous one. I think that is an idea that is an assumption made by those who want to generate some kind of press for their own ideas, but I believe there is plenty of room for truth and I believe that reinvention is a truth for some. .
I am an enthusiasts and will always be one for every phase of life – I don’t think one time of life is better, each age, each stage has it’s value and it’s meaning and to try to stay in one longer that that stage requires is, in my opinion, a mistake, just as going too soon to a stage of life and withering there as some do, is also a mistake. To me to live a life that is vital, engaged in the world and purposeful is the kind of life I want to live myself and the kind I advocate for others.
Aging 200 says
I disagree that change is not good and that reinvention can be dangerous. I believe that some changes can be very good in ones life especially changes that enhance their lives. I believe that a person should not be attempting to accomplish youth again in their old age but reinventing yourself for the right reasons is not a bad thing. I know that when older people join churches and get involved with activities and groups that it gives them a greater sense of meaning and worth. Making a big change like belonging to a group is a good thing allowing for a person to be involved and make new friends especially when they might not be doing as much activity than they used to.
I am a 56 year old widow with a 78 year old mother, (also widowed). We think the idea of growth even as we age is great, unfortunately due to day to day living needs, often we are glad just to get through the week. I do think differently than I did at 19. I understand (after many life experiences) that there is no magic year. I have changed dreams nearly every 10 years. I think that is important, you have to change due to life’s little smacks or sometimes whallups. I think growth does not have to be a big showy production, it can be as simple as making the decision to sit in the sun. I find that humans make things so complicated, but I guess we feel that we must to prove we are the top of the evolutionary ladder!
rosemary weston says
maybe i am missing the point here…my life has been a continuum with changes all along the way. i didn’t suddenly become a butterfly, at almost 73. i am different from when i was 60, or 30. but it happened slowly as i have experienced life. some of those experiences are mine alone and others are ones that happen to most of us as our minds and bodies change over time, but i didn’t suddenly become old. i am old, judged from the average life expectancy, but i see no reason to reinvent myself. i would never want to close myself off from people of other ages and i want to continue experiencing and learning new things as much as ever. i am still ME, older and wiser, even though the short term memory doesn’t work as well, not as physically, fit…have aches and pains i didn’t use to have. i am aware that time and energy need to be used more carefully and thoughtfully. nothing needs to be suddenly be reinvented!
Phyllis Chelette says
I think that this post does change the perspectives we use to view aging. The goals of making changes that may move us out of our comfort zones is exciting and a bit frightening. Although that is what some changes do for us in life. The comfort in making changes is that those of us who have matured know that we have done many changes in our life before we arrived at this time. Reimaging our life and opportunities gives us a positive approach to the future and new year, new goals, new adventures and place of peace and spiritual growth.
Don Ogden says
Yes, this posting and others like it are changing how we age. The article and discussions are intriguing and needed as we address the issues of aging.
Peregrinator states, “Yet all these transformations and reinventions and rebirths appear undignified. Who decides who needs reinvention, transformation and rebirth? Who defines the terms?” This is an excellent observation.
John suggested, “Because of the profundity of the issues we must address in aging, the pace of psychological and spiritual growth accelerates if we take the “work” of aging seriously.”
The complexity of aging along with the change in our societal paradigms driven by technology and communication has had a magnified effect on need, opportunity, healthcare, and aging so it stands that how we approach aging will have to adapt as opportunity and needs arise.
The most profound implication I have discovered following these blogs is the pronunciation that as we now age, no matter what age, there are more choices available. Depending on what is the motivating factor an individual has, they have options and as boomers, inspired by the silent generation and what they accomplished, we are willing to explore those options. We do not want to go quietly into the night as past generations have done. The world does not know how to process this. This is the first generational period to have a choice and our culture does not know what to do with this change, like so many others, such as globalization; from teenagers who don’t have a traditional grandparent role to observe, to the middle aged worker who is still battling for position and opportunity with someone who is traditionally retired. This is a great thing for not only the boomers and older, but for the world to have extended access to the imagination, knowledge, and wisdom we have. This is not just a temporary change but a long term, paradigmatic shift, in how our culture and the world ages. It is my humble opinion that is why we may struggle in defining this shift in its infancy. This discussion and others like it give us hope because we at least recognize it is happening.
The article presents a well stated beginning in addressing the multiple mythologies surrounding the aging process, “reinvention” being one of the most fascinating, if not infrequently pernicious. There is so much ‘top-down’ culture concerning when ‘aging’ occurs, and the notion that one must press ever backwards (twenty is the new newborn?) is at its very best awkward, and at its worst would seem to want to take an eraser to life experience, as if it were all less than worth while when compared with youth. Time does not run backwards and the sooner that is acknowledged, the better. That said, I have no argument with people who want to start businesses or do as they please with their lives while that doing is possible. Yet all these transformations and reinventions and rebirths appear undignified. Who decides who needs reinvention, transformation and rebirth? Who defines the terms?
John Robinson says
I certainly agree with Marc, to a point. We seem to have two dominant cultural aging myths in America – the heroic boomer elder climbing Mt Everest or saving the world with a new enterprise, and the decrepit failing elder stumbling downhill to the end. Marc’s criticism of the reinvention version of the heroic elder is right on. I’m personally tired of the expectation that I should to learn how to surf or start a nonprofit. But the possibility of genuine personal growth and renewal in aging is real. It includes integration along with a whole host of other gifts, many of which involve the continuing evolution of the self, opening the heart, healing old wounds, and transcending the limitation of beliefs in a movement into a transpersonal realm of understanding. I list these kinds of growth opportunities in The Three Secrets of Aging. Because of the profundity of the issues we must address in aging, the pace of psychological and spiritual growth accelerates if we take the “work” of aging seriously.