Making Life and Career Choices in the Third Phase of Life

Article excerpt

This is a report of an ongoing research study into how people make important life and career choices in middle or late adulthood (the so-called "Third Phase" of life). We are trying to understand how people see and experience the process of adult life and career change, as well as what moves one from thinking to action, and how this happens. Although great volumes have been written on these issues over the years, when it came to finding something in the literature that would give us a holistic perspective on the process of how people actually make these important choices, we found little on this particular topic.

We became interested in this issue as part of our work with the implications of people living longer and enjoying better health into the later years of their lives. This provides an opportunity for new careers and other significant life changes, but it is also uncharted territory because this is a radical change from the past. There are few guidelines and many choices available for people entering into this stage of life. How do they think about their work, their relationships, and their lifestyle in general?

But first, a word about who we are. We are an interdisciplinary group representing the law, clinical psychology, organization development, and academe - bound together by our use of a Gestalt perspective to examine change phenomena. We came together in a professional networking/learning community and realized that we all do work that in one way or another involves helping people change and develop. But because each of our jobs leads us to focus on a fairly narrow slice of behavior, none of us ever sees the total process. However, collectively we cover a wider and deeper span of the phenomena involved.

We are using an action research model, with iterative cycles of generating theory-based questions, conducting focused research interviews, presenting and testing tentative findings in learning communities, revising questions and theory, conducting further interviews, and so forth. Our first round of interviews yielded in-depth discussions of how a person made an important life change. From these interviews we found that the issue of choosing (vs. deciding or simply behaving) is a major issue for people. Choice implies a clear, objective, unitary course of action in selecting one of a number of alternatives or options, but many people do not see their life as having taken such clear and conscious left or right turns. Related to the daunting notion of choices was the issue of risk. People often had a strong need that, if they were going to make a choice, it had to be the right choice. There was a concern about the "road not taken" and what they might be giving up. When we presented these ideas at a life transition workshop, there was much interest in this issue among the participants, as well as many questions that require further research.

In this paper we will discuss our findings from this first round of interviews, as well as ideas and our learnings from life transition workshops where we have been presenting the ideas. Our goal is to help us as practitioners a) to develop a model of the personis complex "emotional underworld" to help us understand better how life and career changes occur, and b) to identify new tools to help us to support the change process.

Understanding the Change Process-The Interviews

In our initial group discussions we focused on the issue of how people work on issues of finding meaning and balance later in their lives. We were also interested in how they actually make changes, once they come to some new insights about what good balance and a life worth living would mean for them. Therefore, we came up with a fairly straightforward idea: we would ask people to talk with us about an important life or career change they had made. The idea was to collect phenomenological data that was "experience-near." Each of us talked with three people, focusing on this process in a decision, inquiry, or change that they had made over the last year. …