The Mid-Life Migration, the Big Shift and a New Social Imperative

Article excerpt

We need a new map of life. We've been making do with one that was fashioned for an expected human longevity of 70 years. At one time such a lifespan constituted progress, but we can't stuffa 21st century lifespan into a life course designed for the 20th century - or stretch the old model so that it accommodates a task well beyond its intended capacity.

Though it starts with the numbers, the story really is about the nature of lives.

In 1900, the lifespan in the United States was 47 years. Today, it is approaching 80 (although great disparities persist across class and race). Overall, that's an increase over a 100-year span that approximates all the gains since the beginning of time. And the length of life may well be growing, headed toward me century mark. Some think the upward rise will be even more precipitous.

Yet while we've been remarkably adept at extending lives, our imagination and innovation in remaking the shape of those longer lives have been struggling to keep pace. In the words of anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, we're "living longer and thinking shorter."

The situation is beginning to fray, especially in the period of life that is emerging between traditional mid-life and what used to be occupied by retirement and old age. It's fair to say that this condition constitutes a longstanding problem, one that existed even before longer lives and changing demographics made it a much bigger one.


It took ingenuity to redesign lives to keep up with changes in longevity and society in mid-20th century America, but we rose to the occasion. We plugged the purpose gap with something called the "golden years," a stunning innovation that almost overnight turned an arid economic institution - retirement - from an anteroom to the great beyond into a core component of the American dream.

But now we're looking at 30-year retirements in the era of the Great Recession. A "golden years" retirement is simply not going to work, nor is it desirable. Does it make sense for our society to throw away the most experienced segment of its population that is a long way from obsolescence?

The way to make the most of the coming reality of 100-year human lifespans is not to stretch and strain the contours of a life course set up for a bygone era. This would be an effort akin to performing plastic surgery to make a 70-year-old face look like a 40-year-old one - the result is unnatural and the intention wrongheaded. Likewise, the answer to unsustainable 30-year retirements is not substituting endless middle age for endless old age, which is the alternative some are proposing to the much longer life.

Middle age, like all good diings, eventually must reach an end. …