New York gerontologist Lydia Bronte, who wrote, The Longevity Factor: The New Reality of Long Careers and How It Can Lead to Richer Lives (1993, New York: HarperPerennial), posits the existence of a whole new stage in life between ages 50 and 75. She call this period "second middle age" and says adults in this phase need fulfilling activities to motivate them, especially since people are living longer and are healthier today.
"When adults over 50 realize just how much time there is left to accomplish new things, a whole new sense of adventure takes over," says Judy Rosemarin, a career counselor with Sense-Able Strategies in Roslyn, New York. "It can be a very ex-citing time."
Anita Lands, a New York City career counselor who specializes in working with older adults, sees the age-50 transition as a time of greater introspection.
"A lot of people start questioning what's really important to them," says Lands, "and they make some tradeoffs-usually in terms of money and upward mobility for greater satisfaction."
"People over 50 are usually looking for better ways to integrate who they are with how they make a living," she says. "They want to use and develop some parts of themselves that they may have neglected in earlier years."
In this era of rampant layoffs and forced retirements, these reevaluations are sometimes forced on people. A 55-year-old anesthesiologist had to face a stark emotional reality after changes in the health-care industry and increasing threats of litigation drove him out of his profession.
He wasn't incompetent, just unhappy. For him, retirement solved one problem but opened the door to a host of others. He had never really enjoyed medicine and didn't regret his decision to leave it behind. He'd only chosen the field to please his parents, anyway. Nonetheless, his career had been the centerpiece of his life. Without it at stage center, he felt lost and confused about his role and purpose in life.
To make medicine work as a career choice, he'd put emotional blinders on for much of his life. "If I thought too much about how much I disliked it, I would've had to quit and that was a move I couldn't afford to make," he says. "But now I think I'm paying a high price for that."
It was a very sad counseling moment when he turned to me and asked, "Do you think I wasted my life?" However, the process of questioning is healthy and will lead him to a more meaningful second career dream.
The idea of starting a whole new career at 60, 70 or even 80 may seem strange at first. But if you recognize that development doesn't stop just because your birthday has arrived (yet again), you may be pleasantly surprised by how productive and fulfilling your later years turn out to be. The key is to involve yourself in activities you find stimulating, regardless of the financial payoff.
When she was 54 years old, after a long career as a traditional wife and mother, Shirley Brussell went back to school to complete a master's degree in community organization. While studying at the university, she became involved in creating employment programs for older people. At age 56, she served on a volunteer task force to create an employment counseling service for seniors. Today, at 72, Brussell heads up Operation Able, a nonprofit organization in Chicago with a $4 million annual budget and 350 employees on its payroll.
For her, retirement is a concept that holds no allure. Instead, she concentrates on planning her future involvements- always thinking in terms of what she wants to learn or where she wants to help. As long as you feel yourself growing, says Brussell, you don't feel old.
The desire to keep growing and to give something back to the community fuels many late-life career decisions. For people with that urge, writing and teaching have proved particularly popular options. For inspiration, look at 77-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who says, "Writing history is more fun than doing anything else, so I just keep on doing it."
For him, intellectual curiosity is a great preservative. Without mental stimulation and activity, he'd be a very unhappy man.
"The beauty of teaching as a second career choice is that it lets you use all the wisdom and experience you've gained through the years," says Judy Rosemarin. "It's fun for people to be able to give some of what they've learned through the years back to others."
For one 51-year-old engineer who's in the midst of a segue from Illinois Bell into teaching computer science, early retirement has felt more like graduation day. "It's as if huge weights have been lifted from my feet and I'm finally free to achieve my potential," she says.
While she intends to upgrade her education with a new master's degree, many professionals already have the credentials and knowledge to teach. At 75, a former nuclear physicist discovered he was more than qualified to teach calculus and physics to undergraduate students. As an adjunct professor, he immensely enjoys the classes he teaches. Plus, unlike career academics who are constrained by the need to publish, he's free to focus his time and attention strictly on serving and helping students. It's a wonderful way for him to stay connected to a younger generation without denying his own maturity and experience.