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A Meaningful Passage

Author Gail Sheehy says the key to finding what's important in later life is to seek out your passion and pursue it with all your heart and mind.


Gail Sheehy writes books that wrestle with hefty subjects. There was "Passages" in 1976, which traced how people change as they age, and "The Silent Passage" in 1992, dealing with menopause.

Sheehy's latest, and 11th, work was intended as a sequel to "Passages." But "New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time" (1995, Random House) uncovered "a historic revolution in the adult life cycle." Using U.S. Census and other data, national surveys and interviews, Sheehy argues that not only are we living longer, we are taking longer to reach adulthood.

Between age 18 and 30, one experiences "provisional adulthood," a time when you are still defined by how your parents and others see you. That is followed by "first adulthood," which lasts until about 45 and is filled with turmoil, inventory taking and early midlife crisis. Next comes "second adulthood," new territory that is marked by a "meaning crisis," a surge in optimism, menopause for both sexes and eventually a coalescence in the 60s.

Sheehy names the decades we traverse: Tryout Twenties, Turbulent Thirties, Flourishing Forties, Flaming Fifties, Serene Sixties, Sage Seventies, Uninhibited Eighties, the Nobility of the Nineties, Celebratory Centenarians.

"New Passages" also explores the ups and downs of careers and retirement. For baby boomers on the cusp of who knows what, Sheehy sounds a warning: Don't expect to stop working at an early age, because you aren't saving enough.

Instead, many in the generation born between 1946 and 1964 should anticipate a "serial retirement," or retirement in stages. The worker ends the primary career, perhaps by choice or perhaps through downsizing and goes on to other work. This might be a new career, one that helps solve the "meaning crisis" that hits during the 50s. Or it might be simply another job or series of jobs that don't pay as well as the old career but fill the decades.

In a recent interview from her New York office, Sheehy discussed the changes that longer life spans are forcing.

Q: Let's talk about the basic premise of "New Passages": that our ideas of when major life changes should be happening to people are about a decade out of whack.

Sheehy: There has been over the last 20 years a revolution in the adult life cycle. People are taking longer to grow up and they're taking longer to grow old. People think of themselves as five to 10 years younger than that person whose picture somehow got inside their passport. And they will live a lot longer--into their 80s and 90s. . . . This leads to something that I call a 'second adulthood.' This brings with it something that is not the same as the early midlife crisis that we're used to. It begins with the first intimations that we're not immortal. This is a more serious and profound event that I call the 'meaning crisis.' People are trying to sort out what it all means.

Question: Can boomers even look forward to the type of retirement that their parents or grandparents enjoyed? Do they even want that?

Answer: This generation of boomers doesn't particularly value savings. . . . They routinely think they would like to retire at 50 or they might accept 55. It comes as a shock when they find out that they can't count on 55. Many of them think that between Social Security, company pensions and their nest egg, they would be fine. That is hopelessly naive. Most people are going to have to supplement that, and that means working. Most people are going to have to accept what I call serial retirement, if they will retire at all.

Question: What is serial retirement?

Answer: In serial retirement, you retire from that primary career [and go on to something else]. Serial retirement can be very rewarding. Many people, particularly men who have been working a while, say their careers are no longer challenging or thrilling. They feel stuck. It can become stale. The secret of resolving the meaning crisis in second adulthood is to find your passion and pursue it with full heart and mind. That can take several years. You need to work to make it happen. It may be working in a nonprofit. . . . It may be going back to school. More and more couples are having to spell one another so that one can explore a new direction and get off the hook of being the prime breadwinner for a while.

Question: This idea of serial retirement should hold some comfort for boomers who fear that downshifting of their careers or downsizing of their companies will be their lot in life.

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